1992, PG-13, 202 min. Directed by Spike Lee. Starring Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman Jr., Delroy Lindo, Spike Lee, Kate Vernon.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 20, 1992
Quick. Name at least one major magazine or publication that has not featured on its cover over the last few weeks the faces of either Spike Lee, Malcolm X, Denzel Washington and/or simply the letter “X”. That ought to tell us something about the magnitude of this phenomenon, the ascendancy of Malcolm X in our popular consciousness, the consumer boom in X-merchandising, the standard-bearers who warned against the Hollywoodization of Malcolm, the youngsters and the grown-ups who've latched on to the symbol but know little of the substance, the strategic showmanship of Spike Lee who played out his numerous difficulties while making this film in the public arena. There was so much to live up to, so much to deflect, so many skirmishes that the whole project grew into larger-than-life proportions (a particular danger when your aim is biography and cultural analysis). The thrusts and parries have been well-publicized (if not always well-stated) in the media channels over the past year, fueling anticipation, curiosity and great x-pectations. So now Malcolm X is here and we can see that it's a mortal movie about an immortal subject and the very fact that it succeeds as well as it does is a testament to Lee's skills as a filmmaker. With this big-budget, three-hour-and-twenty-one-minute biopic, Lee has graduated from successful indie filmmaker to epic biographer working on the scale of something like Lawrence of Arabia, Gandhi or last year's JFK. The movie is essentially divided into four separate sections: 1) Malcolm Little's early Midwestern childhood years culminating in his young adulthood in Roxbury and Harlem spent as a hustling, number-running, drug-taking, petty thief known as Detroit Red; 2) his prison years in which he comes to accept the Nation of Islam and the teachings of Elijah Muhammad; 3) his years as the electrifying orator Malcolm X, the faithful servant of Elijah Muhammad and eloquent proselytizer of Afro-American separatism, pride and self-determinism; and 4) his falling out with the Nation of Islam and his journey to Mecca, emergent humanist philosophy, adoption of his Muslim name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and his assassination. Most of what we see in the trailers and commercials are clips from section 3, the fiery public speaker whose rhetoric of self-determinism awakened the modern black pride movement. In reality, this mesmerizing oratory which earned Malcolm X his place in history is but a small portion of the movie. A huge amount of the movie's time is spent with Section 1. True, these early years delineate many of the themes that were to pervade Malcolm's life (the search for father figures, the foreshadowing of his assassination, the nerve-steady risk-taker), but these years are also the period that best qualify as “entertainment” in the classic Hollywood sense. Perhaps to underscore that is a prolonged choreographed dance sequence (like something out of School Daze) that serves no discernible narrative purpose and apparently exists solely for the pure pleasure of doing it. Though Ernest Dickerson's cinematography and Lee's script seek out the distinctive period flavors and culture of those Roxbury and Harlem streets, there is a definite “GP” sheen blanketing Malcolm's early outlaw behaviors and practices. It's also in these early years that Lee, the actor, is most visible as a fictional composite character named Shorty, best friend to Malcolm and voice for most of the film's direct humor. There is also a strong expressionistic streak that comes and goes at random points throughout the story, interrupting the primary “realism” of the story with movie-like pieces of artifice. Sometimes it works, sometimes it's startling, sometimes it's downright baffling. Two of the film's storytelling techniques that function beautifully are the film's opening and closing sequences which tie Malcolm X's life to events in the present using footage of the Rodney King beating at the beginning and closing with schoolchildren in Soweto. Also not to be underestimated is Washington's brilliant incarnation of Malcolm X and Al Freeman, Jr.'s uncanny portrayal of Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X is a fiery, intelligent movie that may not appear as challenging or controversial as some of Lee's previous works. But this movie does something different. Though at times it borders on the hagiographic, Malcolm X is remarkably faithful to the essence of the man -- his anger, his sly wit, his perpetual growth. In the course of its lengthy running time, it captures so very much and thus, the movie's pure pedagogical value cannot be underestimated. It's the type of project whose cultural value will, no doubt, increase x-ponentially.