Over a span of two months each Wednesday will be Denzel Day at Keith & the Movies. This silly little bit of ceremony offers me a chance to celebrate the movies of a truly great modern day actor – Denzel Washington.
It may not seem like it today, but getting “Malcolm X” made was no easy task for filmmaker Spike Lee. Bringing this highly controversial figure’s life to the big screen brought heat from all sides. Lee was criticized by defenders of Malcolm X who feared how he would be portrayed. Many in the white community disapproved siting Malcolm X’s comments and positions deemed by many to be racist and anti-Semitic.
Interestingly Lee even ran into trouble with Warner Bros. who failed to give him the full funding needed to finish the film he wanted to make. With outside help and a lot of determination, Lee finally was able to get his movie across the finish line complete with a 3 hour 20 minute running time.
Lee (who also served as co-writer and co-producer) based much of his film on Alex Haley’s 1965 book “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”. He already had the right man in place to play the titular lead character even before he signed on to direct – Denzel Washington. Petty concerns over Washington’s height and darker complexion were quickly tossed aside once people saw his performance. This was the second of four collaborations between Spike Lee and Denzel Washington and their sharp chemistry together was immediately evident.
Out of the gate “Malcolm X” comes across as very much a standard biopic. But to Lee’s credit he’s not just feeding us information by simply making stops across the timeline. He wants to put us in Malcolm’s shoes. He wants to represent to us the circumstances and influences that shaped the man who eventually turned from a small-time thief and hustler into a powerful civil rights firebrand.
He was born Malcolm Little but during “the war years” he was known as Red. After running afoul of a low-level Harlem gangster, Red flees to Boston where he and his hipster pal Shorty (played by Lee) prowl the nightlife in bright zoot suits and with white women on their arms. Soon they begin running numbers and committing petty burglaries which lead to his arrest and a 10-year prison sentence.
These scenes are broken up by powerful although sometimes klunky flashbacks which present key moments from Malcolm’s upbringing. They include the murder of his father (framed as a suicide but widely believed to be by the KKK), his separation from his siblings by the state, and his mother’s resulting mental illness. He grew up in foster homes where he was a bright kid and a good student even being voted class president. Yet in one scene a white teacher tells him his aspirations of being a lawyer were unrealistic. Instead he should do something more “fitting for a negro“, something like carpentry. These life experiences give form to the man Malcolm would soon become.
Prison proves to be a turning point for Malcolm (and the film). He falls under the spell of a persuasive fellow inmate who introduces him to the doctrines of the Nation of Islam. On one hand it leads him to reevaluate his life, putting aside his past vices. On the other hand he is seduced by the teachings of NOI leader Elijah Mohammad (Al Freeman, Jr) who advocated the complete separation between whites and blacks. He put a needed spotlight on injustices both past and present. But he also taught that all whites are “devils” and that unity among races was not the answer.
The remainder of the movie focuses on Malcolm’s rise through the NOI ranks and into the national spotlight as his powerful speech and ability to control a crowd draws attention from all sides. Lee takes us through the incendiary comments and public controversies; Malcolm’s eventual riff with the jealous NOI leadership; the transformation of his sweeping indictments and personal prejudices to a more thoughtful and inclusive point of view. And of course his assassination on the night of February 21, 1965.
This would all make for an interesting historical essay but what makes it work as a piece of cinema is the humanity Lee and Washington brings to the character. We see it most through the deep-digging personal scenes between Malcolm and his wife Betty. She’s played by a superb Angela Bassett who brings an emotional resonance to every scene she’s in. Washington is as convincing in the intimate moments as he is when brandishing Malcolm X’s unbridled, fiery tongue on a street corner or behind a pulpit. It’s a brilliantly multi-layered performance that opened a lot of eyes.
Spike Lee’s epic-sized biopic covers a lot of ground. The first half is a bit long even though none of its scenes feel wasted. It’s the second half where things really pick up and the complexities of Malcom X take shape. Lee paints a fascinating portrait of a man hardened by racial injustice, drawn to a divisive ideology, and then opened to a new way of seeing things. In Lee’s portrayal the Malcolm who once said “The only thing I like integrated is my coffee” is not the same man we see later. And while he was still clear-eyed regarding the vile and often violent nature of racism, he sought more unified ways of confronting it. In the end that’s what makes the film all the more tragic.
VERDICT – 4 STARS