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.
- Spike Lee
- Arnold Perl, Spike Lee
- Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman Jr., Delroy Lindo, Spike Lee, Theresa Randle, Kate Vernon
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