Malcolm X (1992): Spike Lee’s Epic Biopic, Starring Denzel Washington

David Lean, the master of epic cinema, would have been proud of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. Lee’s new movie exhibits the best qualities of Lean’s work: a charismatic personality placed in an ever-changing political context and in pivotal historical times. Lee’s movie is undoubtedly a major addition to the historical biopicture, a genre that includes Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.

Lee goes beyond that, in the sense that he has chosen a controversial political figure (to this day), shedding light not only on the “real” man, but also on the myths that he (and others) have created over the years.

Lee’s three hour plus picture may seem conventional in moments, but as a piece of filmmaking it is far superior to Gandhi’s nobility of spirit and to Attenborough’s high-mindedness.

Malcolm X chronicles the life of a charismatic and complex man, in both is public and private life, while deconstructing his mythology, and at the same time, trying to keep his spirit alive by mythologizes him as an African-American hero for our times.

I didn’t particularly like the “contemporary” beginning and ending of Malcolm X, in which Lee tries too hard to show the relevancy and influence of Malcolm X on the current political scene. Like the Oscar-winning Patton, Malcolm X begins with the image of a huge American flag–only the flag is burning. This is intercut with the now-familiar video footage of the Rodney King beatings and Malcolm’s provocative statements against the “murderous” white man. And at the end of the film, a group of black kids stand up in a classroom and exclaim: “I’m Malcolm,” “I’m Malcolm.”

Still, with the exception of its overture and epilogue, Malcolm X is a solid picture, one that is always interesting and provocative and often even humorous and entertaining. I say this with a sense of relief, because I disliked Lee’s last two pictures, Jungle Fever and particularly Mo’ Better Blues. A major statement on race relations in America, Malcolm X is Lee’s most ambitious and most accomplished film to date.

Lee’s most felicitous decision was to cast Denzel Washington in the title role. Some of Malcolm’s ideas were offensive and deplorable–his explicit contempt for all white Americans, his militant separatism, his treatment of his white girlfriends. But in Washington’s multi-shaded and subtle performance, Malcolm’s intellectual capacity, sharp mind, brilliant language, and humanity come to life. More importantly, Washington’s charm and versatility as an actor facilitates the radical twists in Malcolm’s short life, and softens the sting of his assertions. With some luck, Washington will not only be nominated, but also win the Oscar Award this year.

It is perhaps Lee’s greatest achievement that he successfully dramatizes the various phases in Malcolm’s life-long transformation and the social context under which this transformation took place. Indeed, Malcolm, the most famous of the Black Muslims, was nothing if not changeable. Born in Omaha in l925, he began as a street hustler and burglar until arrested and convicted. In prison, Malcolm is introduced to Islam and the ideology of Elijah Muhammad, whose emphasis on black pride and black nationalism provide Malcolm the motivation to change his name and dedicate his life to a single cause: “telling the white devil the truth to his face.” The picture’s most interesting sequence is the one describing Malcolm’s rise to power as a leader of the Nation of Islam.

In his effort to glorify Malcolm X, Lee, who co-wrote the screenplay with the late Arnold Perl, consciously glosses over the controversiality of the leader’s views and actions within the black Muslims. And he also mutes the issue of Malcolm’s assassination at a Harlem ballroom. One can only imagine how a director like Oliver Stone would have treated the suspicion that Malcolm’s murder was executed–or encouraged–by the FBI. Lee seems uninterested in resolving this mystery or engaging in another conspiracy theory.

Malcolm X contains only one weak sequence that might be a result of Lee’s indulgence as a director or reverence for his hero. Malcolm’s trips to Africa and Mecca lack dramatic power and, focusing on the spectacular visuals of these sights, they bring the narrative to a halt. But these are minor shortcomings compared to the magnitude of the subject matter and the immensity of the historical era, which spans four decades, from l925 to l964.

The film’s production values, particularly the cinematography of Ernest Dickerson, Lee’s longtime collaborator, are first-rate. Among other things, Dickerson’s camera vividly captures the energy and exuberance of the jitterbug dancing and cabaret milieu of Boston and Harlem in the l940s.

Denzel Washington is admittedly brilliant, but he is also surrounded with an excellent ensemble of performers, including Spike Lee as Shorty, Angela Bassett as Malcolm’s wife, Lonette McKee as his forceful mother, and Al Freeman as the fateful Elijah Muhammad.

Spike Lee is a director who doesn’t need publicity–he is an expert at manipulating the press. Scandals of all kinds have marked Malcolm X from its pre-production to release. But unlike some of his previous endeavors, the quality of this movie at least matches the hype that has surrounded it for over a year. Malcolm X doesn’t offer a revisionist history, as JFK tried last year, but it does provide a new perspective, a distinctly black point of view of recent American history.

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