Friday, August 3, 2018

The Films of Spike Lee: Malcolm X (1992)

Malcolm X (1992)
Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Spike Lee and Arnold Perl based on the book by Alex Haley and Malcolm X.
Starring: Denzel Washington (Malcolm X), Angela Bassett (Betty Shabazz), Albert Hall (Baines), Al Freeman, Jr. (Elijah Muhammad), Delroy Lindo (West Indian Archie), Spike Lee (Shorty), Roger Guenveur Smith (Rudy), Theresa Randle (Laura), Kate Vernon (Sophia), Lonette McKee (Louise Little), Tommy Hollis (Earl Little), James McDaniel (Brother Earl), Steve White (Brother Johnson), Ernest Lee Thomas (Sidney), Jean-Claude La Marre (Benjamin 2X), Wendell Pierce (Ben Thomas), Giancarlo Esposito (Thomas Hagan), Leonard L. Thomas (Leon Davis), David Patrick Kelly (Mr. Ostrowski), Bobby Seale (Street Preacher), Al Sharpton (Street Preacher), Christopher Plummer (Chaplain Gill), Karen Allen (Miss Dunne), Peter Boyle (Captain Green), William Kunstler (The Judge - Boston), Nelson Mandela (Soweto Teacher), Craig Wasson (TV Host), Ossie Davis (Eulogy Performer).
The case can be made that Spike Lee’s Malcolm X is the greatest biopic of all time – it is certainly my favorite. It’s that rare biopic that manages to capture a whole complex human being, and doesn’t try to make him into a saint, and doesn’t try to demonize him either. It see Malcolm X with clear eyes – and it becomes clear by the end that perhaps the biggest tragedy of his assassination is that he was just starting a new chapter in his life, with a new, more inclusive way of thinking – while still maintaining the fiery rhetoric and opinions that made him an icon in the first place. Who knows what Malcolm X would have become if given more time on this planet.
One of the keys to Malcolm X working as well as it does is that Lee takes his time – the film runs 200 minutes, and uses every one of them wisely. The film spends a little more than an hour of that time on Malcolm before the Nation of Islam, and his conversion in prison. It shows his upbringing the son of a preacher, who was murdered, who was ripped away from his family, and knew racism his whole life. It shows his descent into drug addiction and crime. He gets his start there with his childhood friend Shorty (Lee himself), and how he gets involved with West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo) – a ruthless numbers kingpin. When he gets to prison, he is lost – but is drawn to Baines (Albert Hall), who preaches about Allah – and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.) – the head of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm, who was always smart, takes to it quickly. Out of jail, he becomes one of the faces of the Nation of Islam – its most outspoken spokesman. He marries, has kids – but perhaps becomes too big for the Nation to hold him. There is jealously there – and his faith, not in Allah, but in Elijah Muhammad is shaken. He will be killed by the same organization he once served so well.
That’s a lot of material for a movie to cover – but Lee does so brilliantly. He famously took over the project from Norman Jewison – when Lee complained (not incorrectly) that a black filmmaker should tell Malcolm’s story. Jewison is a fine director himself, but it’s hard to see him doing a film this bold and ambitious. The greatest asset Lee has is Denzel Washington in the lead role – one of the greatest performances in screen history. Washington is equally comfortable being the young, brash, confident hustler at the beginning of the film, the fiery orator whose speeches made him famous in the middle, and the tired, weary man at the end. It’s a role that demands much of Washington, and he rises to every challenge. Lee is with him the whole time – there are a lot of speeches sprinkled throughout the film – and they can be difficult to make interesting and not repetitive. Washington does his part – he nails the vocal inflections and tone of Malcolm – delivering the speeches with the same fire. But Lee makes them interesting as well – he places them in context, he concentrates not just on the words, but on the crowds, and how they hang on his every word. Never has a movie with so many speeches not seemed that merely speechifying – which can be the death of drama.
Lee does everything else right in the movie as well. The supporting cast is all good – they don’t allow themselves to be completely bowled over by Washington, but they don’t steal the spotlight from him either. The period detail – spanning mainly from the club scenes of 1940s Harlem, with its clubs, through the 1960s is perfect. Ruth Carter’s costumes (the only Oscar nomination the film received outside of Washington’s performance) are the best of her great career – and the work by Ernest Dickerson as cinematographer, Wynn Thomas’s production design, Barry Alexander Brown as editor (who had a massive task) and perhaps Terrence Blanchard’s best score all excel as well.
Lee doesn’t fall into the traps of most that most biopics do – that play like a series of greatest hits. He’s more interested in who Malcolm was – and his progression from a young age, into the man he became – and was still in the process of becoming. It is a huge, bold, ambitious movie – one in which Lee takes one massive chance after another, and pretty much nails each and every one. The film is a masterpiece – pure and simple.

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