At first, Norman Jewison was considered as director of a movie chronicling the life of Malcolm X. After all, he had done a great job on In the Heat of the Night (1967), a film that took on the racial conflicts of that period in America. Jewison was interested in the project, but there was a public outcry. Many felt that it was only appropriate to expect a black director to make the movie. Eventually, Jewison pulled out of the project. Spike Lee had been one of those objecting to Jewison and in the end he got the job. Ironically, he also faced a backlash, this time from people who suspected that Lee was too ”middle-class” to understand Malcolm X properly.
Sensitive indeed. I have no idea if those people liked the movie in the end, but it is one of Lee’s finest.
Harlem, mid-1940s. Malcolm Little (Denzel Washington) is making a living as a small-time criminal, getting involved in drug dealing, gambling and pimping. After moving to Boston in 1945, Malcolm is arrested after a series of burglaries and sent to Charlestown State Prison to serve an eight-to-ten-year sentence. That’s where he’s introduced to the Nation of Islam, a religious and political group that teaches him to understand his value as an African-American man and to never rely on the white man who has done so much to hold him back. Malcolm immerses himself in the teachings of Islam and replaces his last name, that of his ancestors’ slave owner, with a simple X. When he gets out of prison, Malcolm becomes one of the Nation of Islam’s most powerful ministers, ultimately posing a threat to the group itself…
Anger and determination
Producer Marvin Worth obtained the rights to ”The Autobiography of Malcolm X”, which was written by the man himself and finished after his death in 1965 by Alex Haley. Worth, who had actually met Malcolm X when he was selling drugs in Harlem, was one of the people behind the Oscar-nominated 1972 documentary Malcolm X; so was Arnold Pearl, who worked with Lee on the script for this film.
The director, who had shown so much passion in Do the Right Thing (1989), brought all of his anger, determination, sense of justice and visual flair to this ambitious film. Very long, but always worthwhile, it just draws you in with its vivid camerawork and all the period details; no wonder that Martin Scorsese called it the best movie of the year because this one seems to have borrowed a lot from his style. The film covers twenty years of Malcolm’s life, and locations vary greatly. A visit to Mecca where Malcolm X made his pilgrimage is beautifully captured and historically interesting; this was the first time an American film crew had been allowed to shoot there. Washington’s towering performance is another major asset. Perhaps we never truly get under the skin of this man; the sometimes frail relationship with his wife (Angela Bassett) who feared for his life falls in the shadow of the controversy surrounding Malcolm X.
But the filmmakers bring greater understanding of the man’s political and religious philosophy. It’s all on display and for you to judge – some will view him only as a force for good, others will see the racism inherent in his beliefs that made it hard for him to achieve much as a member of the civil rights movement.
The film opens with footage of the Rodney King beating and ends with Nelson Mandela making an appearance. This was shortly after his release from prison and before he was elected South Africa’s first black president. Watching him repeat one of Malcolm X’s most memorable quotes is moving, powerful – and it’s obvious that those words of black self-reliance are still relevant.
Malcolm X 1992-U.S. 201 min. Color. Produced by Spike Lee, Marvin Worth. Directed by Spike Lee. Screenplay: Spike Lee, Arnold Pearl. Book: Alex Haley, Malcolm X (”The Autobiography of Malcolm X”). Cinematography: Ernest Dickerson. Music: Terence Blanchard. Costume Design: Ruth E. Carter. Cast: Denzel Washington (Malcolm X), Angela Bassett (Betty X), Albert Hall (Baines), Al Freeman, Jr. (Elijah Muhammad), Delroy Lindo, Spike Lee… Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Plummer, Peter Boyle, Karen Allen, Ossie Davis.
Trivia: Bobby Seale and Al Sharpton appear in small roles. The scene where John F. Kennedy is assassinated was lifted from JFK (1991).
Berlin: Best Actor (Washington).
Last word: “[Washington] told his agent a year out that this was the only thing he wanted to work on. I love D, and I know he’s won for other roles. But, to me, this was his best work, Oscar or no Oscar. The thing about Denzel’s performance is that he’s playing four different people. Later in the film when Malcolm is converted to Islam … he’s not Detroit Red anymore.” (Lee, DVD Talk)