Friday, January 21, 2011

Looking Back: Malcolm X (1992)

Directed by Spike Lee

Looking back on some of the best films from past years.

Few men are more larger-than-life than Malcolm X, and so it would seem that few men are more equipped to have a movie made about them. He was provocative, incendiary, memorable, but more than anything, he was a powerfully influential African American leader during one of the most tumultuous racial times in this country's history. But what director Spike Lee did with his film Malcolm X was smart; he did not make it a film about the Civil Rights Movement, but about the man Malcolm was. History has painted Malcolm X as an extremist, the inflammatory response to the peaceful preaching of Dr. Martin Luther King. Lee doesn't try to ignore Malcolm's more notorious moments, but rants become a lot more clear when you have a real understanding of who's doing the ranting.

I think Malcolm X may be the greatest biopic ever made (Sure, Raging Bull is probably a better overall film, but when you consider the true definition of the expression "biopic", Malcolm X embodies that phrase better than any other movie). It helps that the man behind the reigns is Spike Lee, because he was perhaps the only filmmaker at that time who wasn't afraid to make a film that will dutifully alienate white audiences. Malcolm X is an easier pill to swallow than his other masterpiece, Do The Right Thing, but it still holds in it that unapologetic braggadocio unique to Lee's filmmaking sensibility. As if to say, "This is a black man making a film about another black man, and that very film is for black audiences. If whites decide to appreciate that, well, that's just gravy."

The movie covers Malcolm X's entire life: from his beginnings as a two-bit hustler in Boston to leading millions of African Americans as the lead minister of the controversial Nation of Islam. It chronicles each and every evolution (which there were many) that Malcolm took which led to him becoming one of the most important Afro-American leaders in history. Lee does not focus solely on his most prosperous moments, but in fact, an entire hour and a half passes before the Malcolm X we know and learned about appears preaching on the streets of Harlem. And here is where I think the film is it's most audacious. When you look at other great biopics, such as Raging Bull or Lawrence of Arabia, the window of time covered is limited to the moments of the person's highest visibility. Malcolm X isn't only interested in the Muslim Malcolm X, but the criminal and convict that was Malcolm Little, and the more passive Malcolm X who emerged near the end of his life after taking a pilgrimage in Mecca.

But Malcolm X is a political film, or at the very least, it questions some of the political leaders of its time. It flatly shows the CIA playing a role in the assassination of Malcolm. It displays the Nation of Islam, led by the human deity Elijah Muhammad, as a double-crossing, insecure organization. The only person who is able to make it out of the film unscathed is Malcolm X. Many have given their displeasure that the film takes such a gracious stance with a man who has become so polarizing in the history books. But I don't mind it much. This is a film about the man Malcolm X, but more than that, it is a film told almost entirely from his point-of-view. When he's robbing and running numbers early in the film, we're with him. When he's a disrespectful, highly penalized prison inmate, we're with him. Even when he's a misguided, self-righteous spiritual leader, we're with him. Spike Lee's screenplay (written along with Arnold Perl) does such an excellent job of empathizing with this powerful personality, by casually showing us his flaws and insecurities, but never judging them.

Which leads me to the performance from Denzel Washington, which rises above simple imitation and physical transformation. Sure, it's admirable that Washington is able to embody Malcolm's essence to the point that we forget that we're watching a performance on the screen. But what makes this the greatest performance in this formidable actor's career is the transitions that he reenacts so effortlessly. Malcolm Little's transformation into Malcolm X in this film is not gradual (or else this movie may have been even longer), but rather violent and striking. But Washington is such a skilled performer and so honest, that he's able to find the true core of the character and make it feel gradual. And of course, he recitations of Malcolm's famous speeches (sometimes word for word) are engrossing and above all entertaining. Washington only lost his much deserved Oscar at the 1993 Academy Awards because people needed to finally award Al Pacino for his good, but pacifying work in the middling Scent of a Woman. History has shined kindly, though, and most realize that Washington really did have the year's best performance.

Is Malcolm X too long? At 202 minutes, perhaps. I would think that when you're capturing the essence of a man's entire life, a three-and-a-half hour movie is probably too short. You could probably have a valid argument against Lee tacking on a ten-minute epilogue to the film's end (you could say that it only restates what the previous three hours already had), but I think that is an example as to how personal and how important Spike Lee saw this film to be. I don't know if any other filmmaker would have been able to make this movie without it becoming stuffy and generic. Lee fills it with so much charm and energy, and he sustains it for such a long, arduous movie. It never slows down. So, yes, as a number, 202 minutes is too long for your average movie. But for Malcolm X? It's the appropriate length for one of the best historical films ever made.

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