Although he has faded from the forefront of pop culture, there was a time when the release of a new Spike Lee movie was an event. None of his films have been met with a greater mix of controversy and excitement than Malcolm X, now available on Blu-ray.
Lee’s epic three-hour-plus biopic was met with a largely positive response from critics. However, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences proved itself as hopelessly irrelevant and out of touch as ever; the movie recieved only one Oscar nomination, for Denzel Washington’s extraordinary portrayal of the slain human rights leader. Unlike 2011’s subtly racist trash The Help, nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Malcolm X aimed to do something other than make white people feel good about themselves.
It’s not a comfortable movie; in fact, many viewers were turned off to it by the opening credits sequence. The movie opens with the voice of Denzel Washington passionately delivering one of Malcolm X’s most accusatory, inflammatory speeches. The screen is filled with an American flag, which starts to burn as we hear Malcolm X’s words, “I charge the white man with being the greatest murderer on earth. I charge the white man with being the greatest kidnapper on earth.” Lee intercuts the burning flag with the amateur video of Rodney King being beaten by the LAPD. This might’ve seemed like a good idea in ’92, but the King footage feels out of place and out of context in 2012. That aside, it’s a powerful way to open a movie about one of the most frequently misunderstood figures of the civil rights era.
Lee does an exemplary job of depicting the former Malcolm Little’s early adult years as a criminal. Little was Malcolm’s surname prior to replacing it with an X after joining the Nation of Islam and campaigning for the rights of black Americans. Short flashbacks fill in key details about Malcolm X’s formative years. His father was murdered and his siblings were torn apart from each other following his mother’s committal to a psychiatric hospital. The life of crime catches up to Malcolm, known in those days as “Detroit Red,” and he winds up in prison. The turning point is when he meets up with Baines (Albert Hall), who introduces Malcom to the Muslim religion, indoctrinating him in the teachings of the so-called prophet and so-called honorable Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.). Emerging from prison as Malcolm X, he is a changed man. He becomes a prominent Nation of Islam minister, touring America to spread a message of black supremacy and separatism.
What is perhaps most remarkable about Malcolm X is its depiction of one man’s capacity for change. If Malcolm Little’s conversion to Malcolm X weren’t powerful enough, in the movie’s third act we see Malcolm X transform once again into El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz after a life-changing pilgrimage to Mecca. Having witnessed people of all racial backgrounds worshipping together as Muslims, Malcolm returns to America with a significantly different outlook. He expresses willingness, for the first time, to work with other leaders to campaign for “human rights,” a term he preferred over “civil rights.” His view of whites had softened after he experienced praying with white Muslims. Lee covers an astonishing amount of ground with his interpretation of Malcolm X’s unfortunately short life. The scope of his vision must truly be seen to be appreciated. While the more than three hour running time might seem off-putting, it doesn’t feel nearly that long. The movie is loaded with excellent supporting performances by actors such as Delroy Lindo as Malcolm’s former crime boss and Angela Bassett as Malcolm’s wife Betty Shabazz.