|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 18 January 2000|
Warner Bros. shortchanged themselves and their customers with this under-produced DVD. The movie itself looks fine, and is appropriately letterboxed; the sound, in Dolby 5.1, is especially good. But MALCOLM X would have greatly benefited from a fistful of extras: commentary tracks by, say, Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, and people who knew the real Malcolm X. Behind the scenes footage, some production designs -- the movie covers a wide time period -- and perhaps a documentary about Malcolm X all were in order, and not one of them has been provided. The movie gets the usually competent but bare-bones DVD treatment from Warners, and it -- and we -- deserved more. Much more.
MALCOLM X is a strong, well-made movie about a fascinating man who went through enormous changes in his life, and was still changing when he was assassinated by thugs hired by the religious group he'd turned away from. In the title role, Denzel Washington is simply brilliant, giving one of his finest performances.
Instead of the white-hating, reverse-racist demagogue portrayed in the white (and much of the black) press of his time, in the film, Malcolm X emerges as a brilliant man, a deep thinker, and a rational, non-violent leader of his people. In this movie, directed and co-produced & -written by Spike Lee, anyone can see that American society had nothing to fear from Malcolm X, except some lessons that might not go down smoothly, but which America needs to learn. Yes, he overstated his case, but that was a rhetorical device, a way of making himself heard, not a threat.
The screenplay, written by Lee and Arnold Perl, begins when Malcolm is still Malcolm Little, a zoot-suited Boston street punk. Ripe with comic energy, these scenes burst with zest and color (Lee always uses color spectacularly well); there are dances, romantic scenes with a white lover (Kate Vernon) in the back seat of a Cadillac convertible, and a good sense of the late World War II period. Malcolm is both unformed and smug; his vague sense of dissatisfaction is buried as he drifts into crime. In New York, elegant numbers runner West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo) gets Malcolm out of his zoot suits and into elegant evening clothes, and turns him onto cocaine. But a falling out with Archie sends Malcolm back to Boston, where he and life-long friend Shorty (Spike Lee himself, in what amounts to a cameo) are soon arrested as burglars.
Until prison, Malcolm had simply accepted his lot as a black man in America; that's the way things are, live with it. But his education by stern, forceful Baines (Albert Hall), a follower of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman, Jr.), changes Malcolm forever. He emerges from prison a nattily-attired, forceful burgeoning leader of the Muslim movement, buttonholing people in the street, passing out leaflets, and talking, talking, talking.
If he had been nothing else, Malcolm X might well have gained fame as one of the most fascinating extemporaneous speakers of the 20th Century; his words flow like a river, deep, strong and dark -- terrifying to whites (during his Muslim period), exalting to blacks. The movie verges on a weakness in showing us so many of Malcolm's speeches, at such length, but Washington's absolutely mesmerizing performance, with his dynamic, impassioned delivery of Malcolm's powerful words, keep each of the speeches focussed and strong. It's damned near impossible to look away when he's talking, damned near impossible to disagree with most of his major points.
It's a great tragedy that Malcolm's brilliance and charisma as a speaker led both to his triumph and his assassination. If he had not been such a strong speaker, if he had not been so brilliant in off-hand remarks (at times, going much too far, as in his dismissal of JFK's assassination as a case of the "chickens coming home to roost" -- even the film backs away from him on that one), he would not have begun to rival the power of Elijah Muhammad and those around the aging Muslim leader. Malcolm would not have become a national leader of blacks -- and a threat to forces in and out of the civil rights movement. His death would never have been seen as necessary.
For non-blacks, the great triumph of MALCOLM X is that we travel with and understand his changes; he becomes increasingly sympathetic as he nears a middle position on the racial issue. A black man of this quicksilver intelligence, but lack of sophistication, perhaps had to pass through his black-separatist stage, through a disdain of America and of whites worldwide; he had to go through this to learn new, better ways of thinking. After his journey to Mecca, Malcolm became more aware of the unity of the world's people; he was still deadset against the racism in America, but he no longer blamed each and every white person for that. He moves from a kind of worthy arrogance to an even more worthy humility; he begins to see the world's people as being one, while still hoping to lead his own people to a better life.
As a movie rather than as an introduction to the life of Malcolm X, it has its weaknesses, the usual ones for a Spike Lee movie. Lee begins far too many scenes with long swoops down on a crane; his editing is occasionally so clumsy that an action begun in one shot is repeated in the next shot; scenes frequently make their point -- and then make it again, and again, and again. Lee is hardly subtle; he can't seem to let us catch sight of something; he has to rub our noses in it. Lee moves from scene to scene almost dryly; there's little of the simple fun of moviemaking he showed in DO THE RIGHT THING and JUNGLE FEVER. He seems almost paralyzed by his good intentions, and by his dedication to telling Malcolm's story. Occasionally, he becomes a little incoherent; flashbacks to the life of Malcolm's mother at the beginning are confusing and ill-placed -- at times we don't know what's going on, or who we're seeing. And as usual with Lee, he over-uses music; scenes that would play far more effectively without music are underscored almost intrusively.
These weaknesses are noted primarily for the record; the film's virtues are far more important. It's not quite the epic that Lee intended -- epics rarely pivot on the performance of one actor -- but it's an engrossing, involving and important movie. Too bad that Warners did not give it the DVD treatment it richly deserves.