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.
Malcolm X looks good, if not quite spectacular, on Blu-ray in a 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer. Colors are well represented – which is of considerable benefit given the movie’s bright, varied palette. Especially early on, when the costumes are particularly loud and flashy, the vivid colors look great. Overall the cinematography has a sort of hazy, soft focus look. This is also well represented by the high definition transfer. But the downside is that sharpness is a little lacking, especially during indoor scenes. This was apparently intentional and shouldn’t reflect negatively on the transfer itself. My only real complaint was during a few scenes an unusual problem cropped up, noticeable during some of the brightly lit outdoor scenes with sparse backgrounds. The best way I can describe it is that it looked a little like a water stain on the source print. I’m sure that’s not what it was, but that’s what it appeared as: a strange, subtle discoloration.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix gives Malcolm X plenty of sonic authority. There’s nothing particularly exciting about the mix, but it offers strong, clear, center-anchored dialogue. Washington’s voice, so important during the movie’s big speech scenes, is full-bodied and realistic. The music, whether it be Terence Blanchard’s lush score or any number of period pop songs, emanates primarily from the front speakers. It’s always mixed at an appropriate level, with a fair amount of kick from the LFE channel, notably during the third act sequence featuring Junior Walker’s “Shotgun” blaring out. I didn’t hear as much subtle ambiance from the surround channels as I have during more modern productions. But there’s nothing worth complaining about regarding this Blu-ray’s audio presentation.
The supplemental features from the previous standard DVD release have been carried over to the Blu-ray. The most important of these is contained on the second disc, which is a standard DVD. The 1972 Oscar-nominated documentary feature Malcolm X is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, anamorphically-enhanced for 16:9 televisions. Too bad they didn’t go the extra mile and put this excellent documentary on Blu-ray. But it’s still essential to have, as it makes for an outstanding companion piece to Spike Lee’s film. The documentary, narrated by James Earl Jones (reading directly from Malcolm X’s autobiography; some of the same passages included in Lee’s movie) includes interview and speech footage. Not only does it provide a glimpse at the real man, it also highlights the accuracy with which Denzel Washington captured him in his performance.
Included in standard definition on the Blu-ray is a decent 30 minute “making of” featurette that sheds some light on various aspects of the film’s production. One of the more interesting aspects is the financial difficulties incurred by Lee and company as they struggled to get the movie finished. A so-so commentary track with Spike Lee and several other key participants gives even more information, providing some historical context. A selection of deleted scenes, including Lee’s introduction, runs about twenty minutes. The real star of the supplements is Arnold Perl’s outstanding documentary Malcolm X, but the features found on the Blu-ray disc are well worth checking out. Warner’s Malcolm X Blu-ray is housed in a hardcover book case, with several pages of full color photos.