This is one of the most effective and visceral movies I’ve ever seen. It is a vividly realized depiction of a great man’s life anchored by an astonishing performance from Denzel Washington.
A little history before we dive into the movie. Malcolm X was one of the primary figures in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Before that he lead a varied and colorful life with a lot of ups and downs. He is primarily taught in schools as being the militant antithesis to Martin Luther King Jr.‘s peaceful protester. The film offers a much more complete picture of the man that I got in all my years of schooling. It dispelled some myths and showed me a new side to an historical icon.
The production of the film begins with Marvin Worth who actually met Malcolm X when they were kids in Detroit. In 1967, Worth bought the rights to Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He worked for 25 years to get the film made. Eventually Warner Bros. signed on to produce the film with Norman Jewison set to direct. Jewison brought Denzel Washington on board to Star. However, public outcry over the choice of director opened the chair for Spike Lee to take over.
Lee was coming off a string of successes. After the monster smash of Do the right Thing, his two follow ups were met with strong financial reception if not wild block buster success. He had dreamed of making a Malcolm X biopic since his college days and wanted to give this story everything he had as a filmmaker. And he didn’t hold back.
The film opens with one of the best uses of film language I’ve ever seen. A speech from Malcolm X is heard in voice over condemning white violence. This is played over images of Rodney King being beaten by the police. This is intercut with the image of an American flag. As the images and the voice over grow in intensity, the flag catches fire and burns away until all that’s left is an X. It is dramatic, angry, and inflammatory. It’s also incredible filmmaking.
The filmmaking throughout is stunning. It has the sweep and scope of a David Lean epic, but it doesn’t shortchange us on the specific details of its time and place. Massive montages of speeches and cultural changes are married with intimate moments of Malcolm’s family at home. And every moment is infused with energy and vibrancy. Early on young Malcolm has his hair straightened. The way Lee films the disgusting looking chemicals used. The way his edits get faster and faster. The way his framing gets tighter. It all adds up to an incredibly intense and suspenseful scene.
Malcolm begins as a street hustling kid who becomes a violent criminal, running numbers and selling drugs. He falls under the wing of “West Indian” Archie played by the inimitable Delroy Lindo. He’s a gangster who makes being a gangster look so cool. He’s suave and charming then steely and frightening. His ultimate fate and Malcolm’s reaction to him is one of the most incredible scenes I’ve seen. It’s powerful in the most subtle way.
Malcolm ends up in prison where he meets Baines played by Albert Hall. Baines is a convict who has converted to Islam. He challenges all of Malcolm’s beliefs and shows him a different way of looking at himself and his community. There’s a fascinating scene in which they look up the words black and white in the dictionary. White is the color of purity, honesty, and goodness. Black means evil, wicked, and corrupt. The scene angered me the first time I saw it because it demonstrates how racism is baked into the very language we use. This scene and the movie as a whole frustrated me. It challenged me and forced me to think about the world in a different way. I think that frustration is rewarded, but it’s not always an easy film to watch.
Baines helps Malcolm convert to Islam and helps him educate himself. Once he leaves prison, Malcolm falls under the tutelage of Elijah Muhammad played by Al Freeman Jr. He’s the charismatic leader of the Nation of Islam. It’s another incredible performance in a movie full of them.
It’s during this time that Malcolm becomes the fiery preacher we’ve all heard about. There are several amazing sequences of Washington giving it his all reciting Malcolm’s actual speeches to huge rooms of people. Washington’s ability to subtly change his tone depending on his audience is some exquisite acting.
He also meets and falls in love with Betty Shabazz played by a wonderful Angela Bassett. These two have some beautifully sensitive and tender scenes that perfectly offset the grandiose culture shifts the film depicts. She walks a fine line with her performance and brings so much to this movie.
Malcolm’s journey is absolutely incredible. From a criminal to a preacher to a man who tempers his more extreme views in service of bringing the world together. It’s an amazing journey, and I love it.
This review is threatening to become longer than the film itself which is a feat considering the films gargantuan 201 minute runtime. There’s a lot of life to cover in this one. I found it riveting and worth the runtime, but I know that won’t be the case for everyone. An intimidating runtime could turn people off. If that’s the case for you I would recommend watching it in sections. I think it’s worth seeing even if it isn’t seen all in one shot. It’s certainly a better film than the recent Snyder cut, and that film was even longer.
The film is confrontational. It sets out to challenge its audience. I know that doesn’t exactly sound like a fun movie night to most people. I think the viewing it in pieces is a good way to counteract this too. Watch it in segments. Think about it. Digest it. It’s a movie that demands more engagement than a passive viewing experience.
One final criticism; there are no title cards. I found myself lost and confused a few times in the narrative. What city are we in? What year is it? It pulled me out a little as I tried to piece it all together. For a big movie getting lost in the narrative is a problem.
All that said. I think this movie is amazing. I love every minute of it. It’s a stunning piece of filmmaking that totally floors me when I watch it. I love this movie. I think everyone should give it a shot, but I understand if it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s currently streaming on HBO max.
It’s my cup of tea for sure. A+