From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Monday, May 03, 2004

Movie Retrospectives: Biographical Epics
Malcolm X

Race issues have long been a source of conflict and controversy in this country. One can seemingly not take a side on any issue involving race without offending someone and/or provoking an argument. To me, it seems fitting then that Spike Lee's biopic of Malcolm X should hold with that trend.

Lee tells the story of Malcolm from his youth as free wheeling partier and numbers runner on the streets of Harlem, to his ascension as one of the most vocal and powerful civil rights activists for African-Americans as a member of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm's rise is not without its pitfalls along the way.

There are flashbacks to the unfortunate death of his father (ruled a suicide, but in actuality a probable murder for which no one was ever tried). He gets involved with drugs and more serious crimes before being imprisoned for robbery. It's there that he learns of the Nation of Islam. And from that knowledge, Malcolm's greatest strengths are honed and the seeds for his downfall strewn.

I admit to being fairly ignorant when it comes to Malcolm's writings and speeches. I have always known he was a controversial figure because of the very strident nature of his teachings. "By any means necessary," the phrase that has been emblazoned on shirts and hats bearing his image, was just one part of the beliefs that Malcolm X felt were the only true path to racial equality when Malcolm was at his zenith.

His philosophies were aggressive enough that Dr. Martin Luther King distanced himself from Malcolm for some time. He refused to debate Malcolm on matters regarding racial equity because King "considered his work in a positive action framework rather than engaging in consistent negative debate." (All this came from a percursory research dig that led me to this site. If you know that I have some of these facts incorrect because the site I used is incorrect, leave a comment with better sources, and I'll update).

Some of this is touched on in the movies, but Spike Lee gives a much more tempered look at Malcolm than from what I have read previously and seen in other sources. Lee's Malcolm is presented as a flawed individual who finds his true niche, and then has his faith in that niche challenged by hypocrisy within the system he believed in. That hypocrisy stems from the infidelity of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The infidelity sparks a number of other incidents which brings the two powerful men to a loggerhead that the audience knows can't end well, simply because of the strength of will both men possess.

The greatest strength in this movie is in Denzel's performance as Malcolm. Early in the film, I felt like his performance was kind of lackadaisical. It's only as the history around the man develops that I truly understood that was very much part of his problem as a youth. He had skills and talent that he never found a positive, constructive use for. The performance to me reflected the lack of direction that Malcolm himself may have suffered from.

It's when he comes into the Nation of Islam that Washington's performance really gets elevated into another gear. The scenes of him speaking at various temples were utilized frequently in the trailers for the film. But it's a scene where he is handing out pamphlets and trying to persuade people on the street to come to a meeting and see what the Nation of Islam is all about that really shows the charisma that Washington brings to the role.

Contrast that against another scene later in the movie. A NOI member named Hinton Johnson had been arrested and beaten by police in New York. Malcolm and other NOI members demand to see Johnson. They succeed in pressuring the police into calling for an ambulance. At the hospital, the police are in a position where they are staring at a potentially explosive situation, with dozens of NOI members waiting outside with Malcolm to hear of Johnson's condition. When doctors advise Johnson will be OK, Malcolm disperses the crowd with a wave of his hand. The police captain observes "That's too much power for one man to have." It's a massive understatement.

Malcolm's true gift in the film is showing that he knows when to use the closed fist of anger and when to use the open hand of...well not necessarily peace...but respect to be sure. Whether this is historically accurate in the context of the actual man, I do not know. But it makes for some fairly compelling viewing.

The movie is flawed in some respects. I feel like the character of Malcolm's wife Betty Shabazz is woefully underwritten. That may be at least in part due to some of the cuts Lee had to make in his script. Reportedly, he had some references to Betty's claims that current NOI Minister Louis Farrakhan was responsible for Malcolm's assassination (claims she later recanted). Supposedly Lee received specific direct threats unless the reference was removed. The end product results in Betty becoming something of a stock character as the loving supportive wife. With an actress of the quality of Angela Bassett in the role, that is a rather disappointing waste of talent.

There are other supporting roles that make up for that. In particular, I really liked Delroy Lindo as West Indian Archie, the man Malcolm first starts working for as he moves up the criminal ladder in his youth. Lindo is a sorely underutilized character actor in my book. It's nice to see him get something he can really do something with.

On the whole a very solid film to open the week up with. Flawed but still more than just watchable. And it definitely makes me want to know more about Malcolm, Dr. King, and other members of the civil rights movement to a degree beyond what I could get out of a textbook. My hope is that it did the same for others who have seen it, and for those who see it in the future.

Tomorrow: Gandhi.