Spike Lee’s impassioned plea to director Norman Jewison that his ethnicity made him more qualified to bring the life of Malcolm X to the screen than the white Jewison was undoubtedly correct (if not politically correct). But once the finished work hit the screens in a contentious media blizzard in the fall of ‘92, more than a few reviewers dismissed the film by noting the irony of how, in resisting Jewison’s auteurist stamp, Lee had seemed to inadvertently view Malcolm X’s life in Jewison-like terms, because Malcolm X was, at least aesthetically, Lee’s most conservative and restrained film to date. Biopics are a notoriously difficult format for most critics to stomach, and perhaps the key to unlocking their essence is to accept the part of their subjects’ identities and sensibilities that their respective directors seem to understand as their own ideals. (For a recent example, take Bill Condon who, like Dr. Kinsey, seems to be intent on teaching the bluehairs that sexuality is far more essential to the human experience than they’d care to admit.) In that, Malcolm X surely counts as one of the truly seminal biopics, as Lee carries the one time Malcolm Little’s words “by any means necessary” to their logical function in the here and now. The film’s opening credits put the gospel of Malcolm X into a then-current context, daring to intercut his words with videotape footage of the beating of Rodney King by a brigade of crazed LAPD officers and a burning American flag that eventually forms a starred-and-striped silhouette of the letter “X.” And its coda is a bravura montage of crypto-agitprop that features block party revelers on a Harlem street corner holding up ubiquitous “X” merchandise, Nelson Mandela reciting one of Malcolm’s speeches, and black schoolchildren in America and South Africa standing one after another and declaring “I am Malcolm X!” Those two sequences bring the past into the present, but it was undoubtedly the elongated three hours and 15 minutes of essentially straightforward biographical narrative that underwhelmed a few cultural observers upon initial release. (Considering that Lee was pleading that all black citizens skip work and school to go to the theaters and screen the film on its opening day, some wondered why not just distribute copies of Malcolm’s autobiography as dictated to Alex Haley, the book upon which Lee’s film was based?) Still, with Malcolm X, Lee doesn’t so much inject his sensibilities into the lifeline of his subject, but rather comes to see how his place as a film director can be integrated within the social movement of X’s message. It’s probably worth noting that Lee cast himself in major roles in nearly every one of his feature films prior to Malcolm X, but after playing Shorty to Denzel Washington’s Malcolm, he’s been almost invisible, playing (with the exception of Girl 6) mostly bit parts or, more often, not appearing on screen at all. It would probably be assigning an unfair generalization on Lee’s work to suggest that directing Malcolm X taught Lee to trust his personality as an auteur enough that he wouldn’t feel compelled to back it up with his personality as an actor. But it does find Lee’s tendencies toward gadflyish social outrage being folded into the fabric of the typically reactionary biopic genre. Sounds like the epochal film maudit to me.
I don't know what the absolute upper limit is for a film's running time being faithfully represented on a DVD transfer without compromising video quality, but I'll just have to give WB the benefit of the doubt that their decision to chop the film in half and spread it over two discs was the only way to keep the film looking as pristine as it does here. An anamorphic widescreen picture with a surprisingly balanced color palate (even the zoot suits don't seem quite as garish as the commentary track claims them to be) and flawless focus with no artifacts, the only drawback I could spot is that the print used has obviously gathered a trace amount of dust and debris. The sound mix is active, with foreshadowing gunshots that leap from each speaker with terrifying velocity. Also included is a French soundtrack.
Simultaneously one of the most redundant and most inspired extras in recent DVD history, the inclusion of the 1972 documentary Malcolm X, directed by Arnold Perl (the co-screenwriter for Lee's version) treads almost the exact same turf as the main feature. Nominated for an Oscar (which it lost to Marjoe!), it's a patchwork and structurally a lot looser than Lee's film. Imagine, perhaps, if Oliver Stone had snatched the project from Spike Lee's hands. In any case, watch it. Also included is a feature-length commentary track from Lee and other crew members, all very discernibly recorded in isolation from each other. Unless it's a matter of economics, I'll never understand what leads DVD producers to opt for this commentary format, which invariably results in bloodless tracks where no one idea is delved into more than cursorily, and one can't get any sort of feel for the mood of the crew. Everyone on this track speaks with utmost reverence for the entire project, and I have to admit that three-plus hours of such fawning (even from the usually interesting, measured hostility of Lee's speaking voice) gets a tad taxing. Rounding out the package is a collection of deleted scenes introduced by zoot-suit-clad Lee, a characteristically solid WB making-of featurette and a theatrical trailer.
Lee turns the life story of Malcolm X into that rare biopic that all but explicitly acknowledges its director's sense of identification with its subject.