Malcolm X (1992) is Directed by Spike Lee (Inside Man) and is based on the Autobiography of the same name. It stars Spike Lee himself, Denzel Washington as the Titular Character, Angela Bassett, Delroy Lindo, Al Freeman Jr, Albert Hall and Kate Vernon. It chronicles the life of the controversial civil rights leader from his early childhood until his death.
I have read this book twice and it has changed my life. It probably appears prominently on ‘the greatest books of all time’ lists. Barack Obama said, when studying race ‘ only the autobiography of Malcolm X seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me.’ Naturally the pressure was high for this film to be good. I can attest that this is one of the greatest biopics of all time.
Spike Lee delivers an incredible 202 min sweeping epic that is masterfully directed. Like most long biopics, the film picked steam as it went along, going from humble beginnings, into the really important parts – what made the character famous. However, nothing feels boring. The earlier scenes are fun, and energetic. From the dance sequence to the scene on the train the movie starts of pretty fun and is good enough to keep the audience engaged. Lee does transition into flashbacks from time to time, but this really strengthens the narrative, and allows the film to capture all the key aspects of Malcolm X’s childhood.
Ah, he’s just so good in this movie. A film with a premises as large as this one, which still only focuses on one character can absolutely fail if the main role isn’t played exceptionally. And he knocks it out of the park.
Using a warm, dream like tone, Lee and the cinematographer Ernest Dickerson capture an innocence from Malcolm’s early years – before he faced enlightenment. A cold and institutionalised blue tone supplements the blue overalls and grey walls of the prison and really captures his isolation, and the warm tone only ever returns in Malcolm’s vision of Elijah Muhammed. The many speeches, and trip to Mecca is filmed almost in a documentary style, to draw the viewer into Malcolm’s public life. Lee also employs real life footage such as from civil rights protests, and newspapers, blending the fiction with reality. The film was masterfully shot.
A jazzy score sets the atmosphere especially in the earlier scenes. I don’t like jazz and it puts me to sleep, but I understand the era called for a jazzier and at times soulful soundtrack. The costume design is fabulous too. We see a transition from cartoonish zoot suits, to slicker gangster movie tuxedos and finally the iconic dark two piece and glasses. The look and feel of 1950s and 60s Harlem is captured brilliantly by the acting and costume design.
Angela Bassett is very dignified as Betty Shabazz. Spike Lee is as entertaining an actor as Shorty as he is a director and I found his little role delightful. The fictional character of Baines was also played masterfully by Albert Hall. And of course Al Freeman Jr was extremely charismatic as the head of the Nation of Islam Elijah Muhammed. He reminded me of a human Yoda, small and frail yet commanding a lot of presence and respect from with his manner of speech. Great casting.
Now how can I discuss this movie without talking about Denzel Washington. I don’t think I can name many actors who were completely perfect for a role. Denzel was the right height, he was lanky enough his voice was the exact pitch as Malcolm X. He studied his tapes and his postures and gestures perfectly. It was more than just an impression of Malcolm X. He BECAME Malcolm X. Anyone who is familiar with Washington’s work would realise how different this role is. He disappeared in it. Denzel Washington’s family was close to the real Betty Shabazz, and I can see the passion he brought to the role. He gave up pork while filming, and even knew what Malcolm X would be wearing on certain days. That’s commitment. Al Pacino was great in Scent of a Woman, but I really think Washington was robbed of his Oscar that year. It’s sad that the Academy Awards was and still is such a political affair.
Barack Obama said, when studying race ‘ only the autobiography of Malcolm X seemed to offer something different.
What makes Washington’s portrayal so endearing is how great he was across the breadth of the film. In telling the story of a man’s life, a character is expected to undergo changes. This is especially true in the case of a man like Malcolm X, who went from petty criminal, to hard boiled prisoner, to angry and radical street preacher, to mature and mellow social reformer. When we first encounter him, he’s in a red pinstriped zoot suit with a large feathered hat prancing around the streets like a fool. Anyone who isn’t familiar with Malcolm X would think he was a comedian. The movie ends with Denzel speaking in mellow tones, walking slowly and upright often with a book in hand. Looking believable in every frame.
Ah, he’s just so good in this movie. A film with a premises as large as this one, which still only focuses on one character can absolutely fail if the main role isn’t played exceptionally. And he knocks it out of the park. He’s exquisite, from the tense Russian roulette game to the heartbreaking and humble hajj experience. Yes, he’s got great range in this movie. He looked just like him, and it got confusing to differentiate the actor from the real man due to all the real life footage. He was born to play this role. This film should have been called Malcolm X : The Denzel Washington show.
He even recaptures a lot of iconic scenes from Malcolm X’s life, such as the famous window rifle picture in Life magazine. This visual homage shows that this was a true passion project from Lee, Washington and everyone involved. The movie is really given authority from real life appearances from Reverend Al Sharpton and none other than Nelson Mandela. It is also the only Hollywood movie ever to film in Mecca. A truly important film.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X movie is an education to everyone on the planet. It’s a tale of redemption, education, enlightenment, forgiveness and discovery and a warning about the evils of bigotry. It is also a very very remarkable tale of one man’s journey. This film does what biopics should do. Accurately capture all that, and remain entertaining. Because of this, and the phenomenal job Denzel Washington does – I recommend the movie to all.