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Synopsis: Aimless young Malcolm Little (Denzel Washington) becomes a numbers runner in Harlem for racketeer West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo) but after a falling-out has to flee to Boston with his friend Shorty (Spike Lee) and his white girlfriend Sophia (Kate Vernon). A string of burglaries lands Little serious jail time, where he's converted to a Black Muslim church called the Nation of Islam by fellow con Baines (Albert Hall). Upon release, Malcolm becomes a firebrand preacher for the head of the faith, Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.) and dedicates his life to the cause of black emancipation. Immensely popular, he expands the Nation of Islam greatly while sowing jealousy and deceit within the organization; he marries a good Muslim nurse/dietician named Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett) and raises a family. But Elijah Muhammed turns against him, and his own rhetoric attracts the scrutiny of the FBI.
Denzel Washington pulls off quite a coup with Malcom X by making the man sympathetic without soft-pedaling his message. Malcolm's fiery opinions started with the idea that white men were the Devil and slowly worked his way toward a more tolerant point of view. Spike Lee and Arnold Perl's script keeps Malcolm's provocative edge intact. At various points in the picture he calls for complete segregation of the races and condemns the commitment to non-violence of other black leaders as Uncle Tomism.
With plenty of screen time (202 minutes) at his disposal, Lee is able to paint a clear portrait of Malcolm Little's life before his rise to national fame, a life that becomes an indictment of all the things Malcolm felt a black man could do to discredit himself. Straightening one's hair is seen as an effort not to be black, and (in Muslim terms) polluting oneself with alcohol, cigarettes and drugs is perversely actualizing the white man's low opinion of his race. Malcolm's personal revolution and the philosophy he would later preach have little in common with tolerance or the Christian concept of turning the other cheek. His prison teacher Baines shows him how society is fixed against the black man with a simple comparison of how white and black are defined in the dictionary.
The retro-progressive Muslim religion Malcolm advocates maintains traditionally restrictive male and female roles that beg comparison with fundamentalist Christian and Jewish sects. When Malcolm feels it's time to make a proper Muslim marriage, his proper wife is supposed to be a certain height and a certain age (half the man's age plus seven).
The film opens with a fiery image of an American flag burning down to reveal a defiant "X" standing alone, but after that graphic gauntlet the visual fireworks and attention-getting devices that Lee championed in Do the Right Thing are set aside in favor of clear storytelling. The production is put together with masterful ease, effortlessly creating convincing period settings for Harlem dances, Boston slums and the streets of New York City. The dance scenes are entertainingly over-idealized, but when Malcolm leads his churchmen to demand proper medical treatment for a black man beaten by the police, Lee's directorial control is admirable - in other hands the scene could easily be a grandstanding rally for emotional support.
Spike Lee was also able to rally a knockout cast, no member of which is allowed time for special pleading or a star turn. Denzel is a bonafide star light-years beyond the Sidney Poitier days, the intelligent and (when needed) tough-minded authority figure that eluded Harry Belafonte forty years earlier. Angela Bassett is loving and sincere (Lee is as good at presenting upstanding square blacks as he is hipsters) and Al Freeman Jr. (Castle Keep) cryptically menacing as Malcolm's mentor and eventual betrayer. Delroy Lindo is impressive as a three-dimensional numbers racketeer, and Kate Vernon interesting as the white girl who helps lead him into crime.
Spike Lee gives himself roles in many of his films and here plays a rather scurvy associate of Malcolm in his hoodlum days. He'd played Denzel's sidekick just before in Mo' Better Blues. If Lee were reserving himself special status or wasn't a good actor this could be disastrous, but he has a better record acting in his own films than any director I know.
The cameos are in no way disruptive. Christopher Plummer, Peter Boyle and Karen Allen have sharp little vignettes. Many real personages are worked into the distinctively moving montage that Spike uses to end his story and a coda at the tail end of the credits: Tracy Chapman, Bill Cosby, Angela Davis, Janet Jackson, Jesse Jackson, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. Nelson Mandela makes a breathless speech that evokes the "I am Spartacus" cry of rebellion, and the late Ossie Davis recreates the eulogy for Malcolm X that he first delivered at the original funeral service.
The "guests" that appear at the end of the credits are some of the monetary supporters who donated to the film or helped Lee fund it. The Malcolm X project began way back in 1967, and leftist writer Arnold Perl had completed the script not long after that. Spike Lee reportedly had to wrest control of the movie from Norman Jewison to make it his own; his script contribution is said to mainly cover the scenes he's in plus the Mecca sequence. The earlier efforts to produce the movie were stymied by studio demands (the project started at Columbia) that the "political" content be minimized (?). Reportedly, there was also bizarre talk of Charlton Heston playing Malcom X in makeup. (??!)
Warner's Special edition of Malcolm X spreads the lengthy film across two discs and adds substantial extra supplements. A commentary with Spike Lee and his technical collaborators is a good excuse to run the show again. By Any Means Necessary is a new interview documentary on the making of the film. The second disc contains an entire 90 minute Oscar® nominated docu from 1972, Malcolm X; watching it gives one an appreciation for Lee's visual and tonal accuracy. There are also twenty minutes of deleted scenes with an introduction from Lee, and a trailer.
For more information about Malcolm X, visit Warner Video. To order Malcolm X, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Footnote: 1. This information is from Paul Buhle & Dave Wagner's book Hide in Plain Sight: The Hollywood Blacklistees in Film and Television, 1950-2002