A biopic of Malcolm X, fairly self-explanatory
Directed by Spike Lee
Starring Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, and Al Freeman, Jr
Initial Review by JR Peters
As with the last movie I reviewed, School Daze, this movie was directed by Spike Lee. With most of Lee’s movies, he attempts to make an impact with the opening credits and he successfully does it with this opening. Showing the beating of Rodney King with a Denzel-voiced Malcolm X speech playing over it provides us with a reality that even though it has been decades since his death, his message is still just as relevant. I have no doubt that if Lee were to release this movie in 2017 he would have plenty of footage to work with in this instance. Eric Garner, Terence Crutcher, Philando Castile as well as many others.
The story picks up with Malcolm getting a conk hairdo (think Nat King Cole) to which seeing that it worked correctly he says “looks white, don’t it?”. An easy little quip to move past until later on the story when he is confronted by Brother Baines about wanting to be white and uses his conk as an example. Malcolm attends a 40’s nightclub, dates 2 woman at the same time and is shown working as a waiter on a train before moving to New York and becoming a numbers runner and small time gangster before being thrown in jail for burglary.
During his time in jail, he’s shown being broken down by the system, but then lifted up through the words and teachings of Elijah Muhammad. His high intelligence and willingness to learn is shown through his copying of the dictionary and willingness to confront the pastor of the prison. It is in this prison that he parts ways with the final thing holding him back from being the self reliant black man that he has been called to be…his conk. This is a sign that he has left his old life behind.
Lee does a good job in showing Malcolm’s life after prison. Showing all of the public happenings that we all know about, but at the same time showing the private goings on of Malcolm, his family, and The Nation Of islam. Malcolm’s wife Betty Shabazz, played by Angela Bassett is shown as the grounding factor keeping Malcolm from being all consumed by his fame and undying faith to The Nation of Islam. Having brought to him the newspaper headline that caused him to start questioning his faith in Elijah Muhammad that in turn led to him leaving and converting to a Sunni Muslim. In other movies, Lee has a problem presenting a real relationship that doesn’t seem forced or fake. That did not happen in Malcolm X. This may be due in fact to absolutely great actors but the situations that they were in also provided ways for them to keep it real.
The last year of Malcolm’s life is spent looking around corners and behind himself after splitting with the nation. Lee shows Malcolm becoming a better man through his pilgrimage to Mecca. When he gets back from Mecca is the only time Lee interjects a narrative into this movie. He interjects his conspiracy that the FBI helped in the assassination of now Shabazz. He shows Shabazz as a mirror image of his father the nights before he died.
Throughout the movie Lee doesn’t interject his own narrative until the very end. He lets the life of Malcolm X speak for itself. He shows that Malcolm was an ever evolving man that most didn’t know anything about and didn’t really understand. He presents us with a masterclass in empathy as I believe that most would not be able to finish the movie without understanding why it was that Malcolm preached the things he did and at the same time why he was able to move away from them.
It’s hard for me to critique a movie that I consider to be one of my favorite and have seen it more than a half a dozen times. Couple that with Denzel Washington’s strongest performance, and a slew of other cast that bring great performances to the table and I think you have a great movie. My only problem with it is that since I’ve read the Autobiography of Malcolm X there are some things that were left out that I believe should have been in the movie such as Malcolm X’s friendship with Muhammad Ali and the role that his sisters played in his life. But I understand why for the sake of time and the movie they were left out, nobody likes a bloated movie.
This is an easy A.