Combustible Celluloid
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With: Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman Jr., Delroy Lindo, Spike Lee, Theresa Randle, Kate Vernon, Lonette McKee, Tommy Hollis, James McDaniel, Ernest Thomas, Jean LaMarre, O.L. Duke, Larry McCoy, Debi Mazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Roger Guenveur Smith, Craig Wasson, Richard Schiff, Michael Imperioli, John Sayles, Martin Donovan, Nicholas Turturro, Vincent D'Onofrio, Al Sharpton, Bobby Seale, Christopher Plummer, Karen Allen, Peter Boyle, William Kunstler, Nelson Mandela, Ossie Davis (voice)
Written by: Spike Lee, Arnold Perl, based on "The Autobioraphy of Malcolm X" as told to Alex Haley
Directed by: Spike Lee
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for a scene of violence, and for drugs and some language
Running Time: 202
Date: 11/17/1992

Malcolm X (1992)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Power and Equality

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When I initially saw Spike Lee's Malcolm X in 1992, I was disappointed. I had recently read Malcolm X's autobiography, as told to Alex Haley, and I had a different image of Malcolm in my head. For me Denzel Washington's performance was too charming; the actor's dazzling smile came through when I felt the character should have been more fearsome. Also, I found Lee's direction a bit too flashy.

But looking at the film again, nearly twenty years later, I saw those gripes fly right out the window. Now it appears as if Washington's performance is perfectly modulated, capturing many facets of Malcolm's life, and also the long journey he took to finally fulfilling his destiny. And Lee's direction now comes across as the perfect combination of epic and personal, intimate and spectacular.

It opens with a dance sequence that could have come from a Vincente Minnelli film. Malcolm and his pal Shorty (Spike Lee) march into a night club wearing their primary colored zoot suits, and everyone launches into a choreographed, heart-pounding number. It's impossibly joyous and vibrant, and it gets you grinning in spite of the obvious hardships to come.

The initial images of young Malcolm -- nicknamed "Red" for the lighter color of his hair -- show him naïve and cheerful. He happily gets his head "conked," wherein a poisonous mixture of lye and other things are poured onto an afro; the result is that it's burned into a more manageable, "straight" hairdo. It's not long before Red meets the gangster West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo) and embarks upon a life of crime. He runs numbers, then begins dealing drugs. He also becomes involved with a "devil" white woman, Sophia (Kate Vernon). He eventually gets caught and goes to jail.

There, he meets Baines (Albert Hall), who introduces him to the Muslim religion and to the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.). Malcolm jumps right into this new world, forsaking women, drugs, booze (and pork), and beginning to preach about the power of the black man. There are two drawbacks here. One is that the power of the black man comes at the expense of the white man. In one scene, an eager, white college student approaches Malcolm to ask what she can do to help. Malcolm stares coldly at her and says, "nothing." The other drawback is that Malcolm clearly worships Elijah Muhammad (he weeps openly upon meeting him for the first time), and that can only lead to trouble. Elijah Muhammad is a man, and not a god.

During this time, he meets and marries Betty (Angela Bassett), and despite Bassett's obvious talent and presence, the "wife" character in these movies rarely has much to do. Finally, after jealousy and backstabbing in Elijah Muhammad's camp force Malcolm to leave, he converts to Sunni Islam, and makes his journey to Mecca, where he realizes that all people have the same capacity for empathy and tolerance, and the same right of equality. He begins a new round of preaching, speaking to everyone, and even admitting his past mistakes.

Lee and Washington work together to keep this 200-minute movie on track at all times. Lee contributes some dazzling sequences, editing speeches together, using archival news footage, and music of the era. Washington's speeches sound authentic, including pauses and slip-ups; he comes across as fierce and compassionate. After blowing up at some of his colleagues, he gently apologizes for "raising his voice." Lee's long epilogue -- which foreshadows the ending of Spielberg's Schindler's List the next year -- may have seemed overdone at one time, but now it makes sense: it draws a connection between Malcolm X's 1960s and the 1990s (and beyond), and attempts to correct the view of Malcolm X as a militant leader.

But what raises this movie above most other American biopics is that Lee seems genuinely connected to this material. His every move seems to have led up to this position, in this particular moment; it's Malcolm's story, but every fiber of the movie belongs to Lee. Anyone could have directed Gandhi (1982), but only Lee could have made Malcolm X in 1992; it's astonishing to realize that Norman Jewison had originally been hired for the job. Lee had to raise hell to wake everyone up and make them realize what was going on -- just like his subject. And that's why Malcolm X is one of the greatest of all American epics. Yet, despite the Academy's love for epics, it received just two Oscar nominations, one for Washington and one for costume design, and lost both. (Astonishingly, Washington lost to Al Pacino for the embarrassing Scent of a Woman.)

The end credits feature a song by Arrested Development, the then-hot hip-hop group. Whatever happened to them? 1992 was a big year for biopics; there was also Chaplin, Hoffa, and 1492: The Conquest of Paradise.

In 2012, Warner Home Video released a long-awaited Blu-Ray book edition, just prior to the film's 20th anniversary. The high-def transfer returns the movie to its epic glory. Extras include a commentary by Spike Lee, Ernest Dickerson, Barry Alexander Brown and Ruth Carter, a "making of" featurette, 9 deleted scenes, introduced by Spike Lee, and a trailer. A second, bonus DVD includes the 1972 feature-length documentary Malcolm X.

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