Black Directors Feature #7 – Malcolm X (1992)

large_tl3Bxpv6pLhm6gZOtokQuqPw7BuMalcolm X (1992)
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Spike Lee, Arnold Perl (Based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X, Alex Haley)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman, Jr., Delroy Lindo, Spike Lee

One of the greatest biopics in film history about one of the world’s most important social activists in history, released in a notably strong year for Hollywood, and made by one of America’s most controversial and misunderstood filmmakers – what on earth could go wrong?  Spike Lee’s Malcolm X came out after a string of critically acclaimed hits from the young director.  How does one follow a filmography with titles like She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, and one of the most important movies of the 1980’s – Do the Right Thing?  By making a film about one of the most important and divisive figures in modern American history, that’s how.  The pairing of Spike Lee and Malcolm X seems like a natural pairing in retrospect, but at the time lead up to its release the film had a great deal of naysayers and non-believers waiting for the epic project to crash and burn.  But it didn’t, and instead Spike Lee and star Denzel Washington crafted one of the most intimate, epic in scale, and meaningful biographical dramas ever made.  Covering the man’s young adulthood from his less than glamorous life of crime, to his time in prison that directly led to his adoption of the Islamic lifestyle, to his later political and religious activism in the American South, ultimately leading to the tragic and complicated demise of Malcolm X.  It was critically acclaimed from the moment it was released to the world, landing on many critics top 10 lists for 1992, was highly praised by legendary film director Martin Scorsese, and even ranked as Roger Ebert’s favorite film of the year.  Malcolm X was nominated for two Academy Awards – Best Actor in a Leading Role (Denzel Washington) and Best Costume Design.  Unfortunately for Spike Lee and his labor of love, the epic biopic was released in a year where Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven dominated the awards season, and films like Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, James Ivory’s Howards End, Robert Altman’s The Player, Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game, and others like The Scent of a Woman and Chaplin hogged the spotlight.  Washington’s loss to Al Pacino for Best Actor has gone down as a tragic mistake for the Academy, giving the award to an actor who had never won the award, instead of one who truly had the best performance of that year.  Fortunately, Lee’s Malcolm X is now looked back upon as one of the best films of the decade, and lives on in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.  Since his critically acclaimed effort on Malcolm X, Spike Lee has made numerous acclaimed films, spanning a wide variety of genres, most notably documentaries like 4 Little Girls, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, and its follow up If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise, along with narrative films like 25th Hour, Bamboozled, Summer of Sam, Inside Man, and his most recent Chi-Raq.

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Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in his pre-Nation of Islam days.

Told in three separate acts, Malcolm X explores the entire adult life of the man himself.  Each act takes place in a different period of Malcolm’s life, and chronicles his rise from a relative nobody to one of the most influential and controversial men of his time.  The film begins with Malcolm (Denzel Washington) getting involved in the Harlem crime scene, committing petty crimes for West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo), a crime boss.  We also come to find out what has happened to Malcolm’s family – his father was murdered by white supremacists when Malcolm was a child, and his mother was institutionalized after displaying signs of mental illness.  After a falling out with Archie, Malcolm flees to Boston and takes up a different style of crime.  Soon enough, his luck runs up and Malcolm and his friend Shorty (Spike Lee) end up in prison, where Malcolm is to serve a ten-year term.  The second act in the film sees Malcolm trying to survive the harsh conditions of prison.  He meets a man with some pull named Baines (Albert Hall), who slowly introduces him to the ways of Islam, and Malcolm becomes a bona fide member of the Nation of Islam.  The third and lengthiest portion of the movie sees Malcolm under the tutelage of Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman, Jr.), the leader of the Nation of Islam.  Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm form a strong bond, and the young man quickly rises up the ranks of the NOI.  Eventually, Malcolm meets his future wife Betty (Angela Bassett), who becomes a major influence on his life.  After travelling to Mecca, Malcolm’s beliefs are views are shaken and he begins to view things differently than the way the Nation of Islam has taught him to believe.  This sets in motion the events that will ultimately lead to the assassination of the charismatic civil rights activist, and the rest, for better or worse, is history.

There are very films sitting at the 200 minute mark that I’ve enjoyed every single second of, but I can say without a doubt that Malcolm X belongs to that very exclusive and prestigious club.  The 1992 biopic could have just been yet another run of the mill and standard story of an incredibly important man in history, which is why I’m so thankful for Spike Lee’s involvement in the project.  His passion for Malcolm X and the history of African Americans in the United States can be felt throughout the 200 minutes, and Lee’s timeless directorial style elevates it from what many would consider “Oscar-bait” into a truly brave and outstanding production from all perspectives.  After seeing and being highly disappointed by Lee’s acclaimed film 25th Hour, I thought that nothing in his filmography could ever reach the highs of movies like Do the Right Thing and Chi-Raq, but boy was I wrong.  Malcolm X may be not only the greatest biopic ever made, but also my favorite Spike Lee joint.  Nearly every aspect that I can think of featured in Malcolm X is outstanding, from the production design to the acting.  Every act feels different in its tone and deals with different themes, from discovering oneself in the first, to finding answers in spirituality in the second, and later to making profound discoveries about yourself and changing major views you once passionately held true.  The locations and costumes help bring the world around us to life, and allows the audience to completely sink into the era.  The true standout here is very clearly Denzel Washington in his portrayal of the titular X.  His portrayal always exudes the confidence that Malcolm X so clearly had in order to go so far at the rate he did, but also gets across the overly-serious nature of the man, as well as his later struggles with his faith in the Nation of Islam.  I’ve never seen Denzel better than he was here, and it’s a damn shame that he didn’t take home the Oscar on the fateful night in March of 1993.  Backing up Washington’s performance is a terrific roster of supporting players like Angela Bassett, writer-director Spike Lee himself, Albert Hall, and Al Freeman, Jr.  I firmly believe that Washington’s performance wouldn’t have been half as great as it was if it weren’t for incredible direction by Spike Lee.  If anything, the man knows how to direct an actor to a terrific performance, and this is easily his finest work.  Spike’s usual stylistic flashes are toned down in Malcolm X’s first half because of its historical and serious nature, but they’re still noticeable when they’re there.  The final act of the film is drenched in style, including montages and the incredible arson scene.  His quick editing style matched with the use of occasion long takes to get a point across works tremendously, especially in the film’s final twenty minute stretch.  While the death of Washington’s Malcolm X is incredibly hard to watch, the impact it has is a testament to the power of the picture.  You know it’s coming for three hours, and yet it still manages to shock and move you when the time finally comes for it.

malcolm-x

Denzel Washington as the titular Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s 1992 joint.

Please – if you haven’t seen Spike Lee’s Malcolm X before reading this review, for the love of all things holy do yourself a favor and track down the film.  While the run-time may scare some viewers away, I can promise you that the experience flies by, especially once X has gotten out of prison and embraced his new found way of life.  This is an incredibly moving and powerful film about a man who I greatly admire, flaws and all.  It does his life and accomplishments justice, and still isn’t afraid to look at Malcolm X with a highly critical eye.  I firmly believe that this is Spike Lee’s greatest accomplishment, and a treasure of African American cinema.  Whether or not you have interest in the subject matter or the man, see this movie as soon as you can.  It’s a masterpiece on every level.  Spike Lee’s Malcolm X gets my highest recommendation.

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