It’s not without a nugget of irony that Clint Eastwood’s superb J. Edgar recently found itself under a similar, though by no means identical, form of scrutiny as Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. Diametrically opposed figures of radical and radically disparate philosophies, the stories of these two iconoclasts remains touchy subject matter for no reason larger than the irrefutable fact that their actions, and the various perceived meanings of said actions, have overwhelmed their personal struggles. It’s the reason that J. Edgar can be dismissed as both soft and outrageous, and why, upon its release, Malcolm X was derided for being at once “shapeless” (by Jonathan Rosenbaum) and “conventional and sluggish” (by Todd McCarthy).
Yet, just as J. Edgar is a profoundly odd masterpiece that speaks directly to Eastwood as an artist and a steely, complex political persona, Malcolm X is a thunderous opus of personal introspection at once doubling and masquerading as the life story of one of the key figures of the civil rights movement—in effect, a man influential in allowing films like Lee’s to be made. Indeed, the fact that a serious film about Malcolm X was produced and distributed by a major studio (Warner Bros.), released on the eve of Thanksgiving, and allowed to run north of three hours is so astounding and devastatingly unlikely that it may have only one real equivalent in modern cinema: Warren Beatty’s Reds.
Even if a biopic of an iconic public leader who openly referred to whites as devils and likened the assassination of J.F.K. to “the chickens coming home to roost” could be labeled conventional, it seems impossible to ascribe such an adjective to a film that opens with dark blue credits against a close-up of the American flag being burned into the shape of an X. This wholly unconvincing attitude that Lee’s film is lesser because it indulges in certain time-tested elements of popular cinema is not only unfair, but also completely wrongheaded when considering the film’s overall importance.
The elements of popular cinema found in Malcolm X speak to the fact that the film is utterly unique—you won’t find an equivalent film about Martin Luther King Jr. or Stokely Carmichael—and the struggle Lee faced in arriving at this stage of his career. The script, written by Lee and Arnold Perl, which follows Malcolm (an invigorating, masterful Denzel Washington) from his days as a cartoonish skirt-chasing hood to an imprisoned intellectual and finally to the deeply conflicted spokesperson for the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammed (Al Freeman Jr.), unfolds in linear time with brief flashbacks to his family’s struggles while the brutal murder of his father (by the Black Legion). Also, the use of a star such as Washington surrounded by strong but relatively unknown supporting players—Delroy Lindo, Albert Hall, Kate Vernon, Lee himself, and, most prominently, Angela Bassett as Malcolm’s wife—gives the film breadth without breaking focus from the central protagonist.
Lee wasn’t a complete novice in the major studio system: Universal had produced and distributed both Mo’ Better Blues and Jungle Fever in 1990 and 1991, respectively, and reaped minor fiscal and critical rewards from both. It’s no hit against Lee, however, that neither of those films show the powerful, assured talent that’s on hand in Malcolm X. Scenes and sequences operate on their own varied, provocative interplay of sound and image, and yet the film hits with an immense, cohesive emotional force by the time the strings of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” come in. For every scene of familiar racial struggle, there are images uniquely Lee’s, from a frantic, desperate Malcolm going through a violent fit while in solitary confinement to the immaculate long take that brings Lee’s Shorty into the barbershop where Malcolm first attempts to straighten his naturally nappy hairdo.
It’s interesting to note that appearances, such as hair and clothing, are a huge prevailing theme in Lee’s film. Lindo’s gangster’s first alteration of Malcolm is to get rid of his oversized, colorful duds, which make young Malcolm look like a character out of Ralph Bakshi’s Coonskin. The Nation of Islam fits him with very specific clothes and a rigorous moral and spiritual aesthetic but are riled to furious vengeance when Malcolm rigidly adheres to the moral image he was taught. And as Malcolm X is very simply the story of an extraordinary young black man trying to find his place in America and, even more, in his race, it is by extension the story of an artist searching and seeking his identity and the correlative stylistic expression of that identity.
As a political film, Malcolm X is frustrating, but not for lack of good reason. The truth is that the film is preposterously close to balanced: White people are evenly portrayed as bigots or fools, but Malcolm’s statements on J.F.K.‘s assassination not only make him an enemy with the white majority, but become the major separating factor between him and the Nation of Islam. Lee has done the remarkable and portrayed Malcolm X as a true individual, not without a certain sense of hagiography. As a film that shows the American civil rights movement as a struggle powered and enlivened almost completely by brave and brilliant African American leaders, in a year that will see The Help win at least one Oscar, Malcolm X remains an irrefutable revelation.
There's some softness to be found in the images of Warner Home Video's 1080p transfer of Malcolm X, but this, by all indications, was a choice made by Lee as a director. Other than that, there's very little to complain about here; I thought I detected some crush, but these moments were blink-and-miss-them at best. Otherwise, this a seriously gorgeous watch: Detailing and texture are fantastic, especially in clothing, skin, and buildings, while the colors are boldly pronounced, especially in the early scenes with Malcolm and Shorty's zoot suits and the various dresses that can be spotted in a dancehall scene. The audio is equally impressive, with a dense thicket of audio given great balance in the low end. Dialogue is crisp and clear, while sound effects, Terence Blanchard's excellent score, and songs by Sam Cooke and Louis Jordan & His Tympany 5 blend beautifully behind the talk.
Here's a lean, impressive set of extras that gets to the point quickly and offers a great deal of insight into the production and reception of the film. The commentary, featuring Lee, Ernest Dickerson, Barry Alexander Brown, and Ruth Carter, is chopped up from various interviews but remains unsparing in its detailing of the technical side of the film and Lee's devotion to the work. The making-of documentary is top notch, though I honestly wish we got a little more time with the cast to get a better idea of their processes and their working relationships with Lee. The inclusion of Malcolm X, the 1972 Oscar-nominated documentary on the leader, is a great treat and should be required viewing; it was directed by Arnold Perl, who co-wrote Lee's film. The deleted scenes are varied and interesting, though nothing that we really miss from the three-hour-plus film. A trailer is also included.
Spike Lee's deeply felt landmark biopic of Malcolm X gets a handsome transfer from Warner Home Video with an excellent smattering of insightful extras.