Biographical epic of the controversial and influential Black Nationalist leader, from his early life and career as a small-time gangster, to his ministry as a member of the Nation of Islam.Biographical epic of the controversial and influential Black Nationalist leader, from his early life and career as a small-time gangster, to his ministry as a member of the Nation of Islam.Biographical epic of the controversial and influential Black Nationalist leader, from his early life and career as a small-time gangster, to his ministry as a member of the Nation of Islam.
Lee does not want any question about the tone of this film. Opening with footage of the Rodney King beating projected onto an American flag that chars before bursting into flames while Malcolm's `American nightmare' speech is played over the top, Lee leaves us in no doubt that this film will not step back from being provocative and incendiary. Unlike many reviews on this site, I will not review the politics of Malcolm X but I will try and view this as a film. I do not need to agree with the stance of X to be interesting in this film - I did not watch this film to fight with it or get annoyed by it, I watched it to listen to Lee tell the story of Malcolm X.
Substance wise, the film is too long - Lee did not allow the editors to be as ruthless as he should have been. I can understand why though, this was a labour of love and he must have felt that he needed that long to do the job. As a flow it works reasonably well, although it is too baggy quite often, but it is an interesting story nonetheless. Many critics have lambasted the film for it's bias. In that regard the only thing that surprised me was that they genuinely seemed surprised by this fact - what did they expect from Spike Lee? However, I don't believe that this is a fair accusation to make at Lee. He tells the story in a fair light - he doesn't hide the double standards of the Nation of Islam nor does he spin the anti-white teachings to paint Malcolm in a better light. Of course Lee is going to bring his own pro-black politics to the film, but that is his right and he doesn't rewrite history to serve himself.
In fact I admired some of Lee's touches as they actually produced a more balanced view. For example, where Malcolm is talking to Betty about his thoughts on women, Lee cuts to Malcolm being told the same opinion (word for word) by Muhammad - a brave move that implied the spoon feeding of his views that I didn't expect from Lee. Of course the other way to look at it would be Lee excusing Malcolm's stance on women by pinning it on Muhammad and in fairness to that view, Lee does tend to gloss over the NOI's view on woman's place. The film is a little kind to Malcolm but not to the point where the absurd claims about bias and spin would really stick - well, for the majority anyway. I did feel that, although it wasn't spin, that the final 5 minutes of the film really went too far with the little kids all standing up saying `I am Malcolm X', parallels with Jesus and then Mandella being wheeled out...now THAT bit I found to be unnecessary as it was not from Malcolm - it was heavy politicing from Lee himself in further evidence that he was knocked off his usual style by the weight of the material.
In fact, this stands out to me as being one of Lee's least stylish and slick films - only the early, freer scenes of Malcolm's crime, drink and dancing seem to be directed by a Spike Lee using the camera and the space. For the most part, Lee sits back and watches - apparently in total reverence of this subject and afraid to take away from the supposed importance of what the film is trying to do. It is a shame because the overly long running time means that it desperately needed a spark at times and I did expect Lee at least to bring the film alive with visual flourishes. Sadly, like I say, Lee's respect for his subject causes him to do nothing and, worse still, he includes some bits that just don't work - Muhammad's appearance in the cell is worst but Malcolm's trip to Mecca doesn't work as it is overlong and forced (again, as Lee stresses that Malcolm dropped the anti-white stance). In regards this, critics have unfairly accused Lee of trying to lessen Malcolm's stance and make it more acceptable (ie change history) but those of us who are a bit older know that we will learn things over our life and will not hold the same opinions as we did when we were 18, or 25, or 30. In the same way Malcolm lost his harsh teachings with age - this is the case, it is not Lee trying to trick us.
For all these reasons, the film is greatly in debt to Denzel Washington. If it weren't for his engaging and powerful performance then this film would be very bland for the majority. Happily then, Washington rises to the role and deals with it's changes and development really well. He makes a charismatic leading man and it is difficult to imagine that anyone else could have done a better job with this role - or that the film would have worked without him. The names of those involved is impressive, but not all their performances are. Bassett varies between being a shy little woman and having raging fights with her husband, in neither mode does she convince. Freeman is also pretty comic - but part of the blame for that lies with Lee's portrayal of him (floating in a cell is not a good look!). Hall, Lindo, Randle, McDaniel and Lee himself all do reasonably well in minor roles but the film belongs to Washington and it is just as well for the film's sake that he is up to the task.
Overall this is an interesting film that is worth seeing as an INTRODUCTION to Malcolm X - however if you take your opinion from this film alone then you are doing yourself a disservice. As a Spike Lee film it is surprisingly flat and lacking in the usual visual style that he brings, it is a real shame but this labour of love is not one of his better films (although it is not among his worst) - it is rather pedestrian, overlong and, were it not for a charismatic performance from Washington, would be a lot duller than the subject deserved.
- bob the moo
- Apr 13, 2004