By any means necessary…
Opening Statement Having become a teenager in the Summer of Love (am I really that old?), being a liberal guy, having a pretty strong moral sense and innate desire to root for the underdog, and being white almost to the point of transparency, it should come as no surprise that I carry a rather large load of the White Man's Burden. For you youngsters, that's guilt about the extreme institutionalized violence perpetrated upon blacks in this county for most of its history. Whereas the Nazis hid away their death camps, in the early days of this country, they were in the backyard, and later on just down the street. As portrayed in songs like "Strange Fruit," hangings and lynchings weren't just common; they were often considered fun for the whole family.
Given my feelings on these matters, I've always been interested in people like Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. who, despite any personal failings they might have had, demonstrated incredible bravery and strength of character to stand up to such systems, and to do so without perpetuating the cycle of violence. Only in those countries where such changes are so brought about do they seem to become part of the fabric of society, because they are based on gained respect and not fear.
But, to a young black man in the post war years of this century, whose father had been lynched and killed by Klansmen, whose family had been torn apart, and whose horizons were artificially set for him, turning the other cheek probably seemed a bit too charitable. Such was the story of the other great figure of the American civil rights movement, Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little. If King was the carrot, Malcolm and the Black Muslim organization that he rose to become the spokesman for and which eventually assassinated him, was the stick.
Extended oppression can cause many weird side effects in a people (see the excellent films A Soldier's Story and Get on the Bus for some examples), and self-loathing and doubt are common resulting emotional glitches. For some people, love and self-respect can raise them out of this quagmire; but, for others, sometimes it's accomplished by sharpening the sword of one's anger to a fine point. Malcolm and the Black Muslims took the latter approach, and believed in fighting fire with fire. In the end, I believe that they were wrong, and that Dr. King's approach achieved much more. And it seems that towards the end of his life, Malcolm came to believe the same thing. But unfortunately, his own former brothers assassinated him before he could explore that new vision.
As I remember it, director Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Get on the Bus, Clockers), caught a good bit of flack from the black community for not treating Malcolm X sufficiently reverentially in this film. But I believe that he made the right choice. Only by dealing honestly with where Malcolm came from can it be appreciated where he got to. So the story begins with Malcolm, played by Denzel Washington (Philadelphia, Devil in a Blue Dress, The Hurricane), and his friend Shorty, played by Spike Lee, enjoying their youth around Harlem, and wearing some serious pimpwear. I'm not sure if Lee was playing around a bit with the wardrobe, but these are some seriously flashy outfits. At this point, Malcolm is just another kid, trying to get girls, make a few bucks, and stay footloose and fancy free.
Early on, at a dance, Malcolm meets Sophia, played by Kate Vernon (Pretty in Pink, Unglued, Mob Story), a white woman who has a thing for black guys and they hook up. Malcolm, at least from the perspective of his voiceover that is presumably from the grown man, is pretty cynical about the whole affair, and discusses how he sees this as just another way to get back at the white man, by using his women. But, Sophia sticks it out and seems to really care for him, and goes along willingly with his increasingly lawless lifestyle. They remain together until the law comes between them.
Eventually, Malcolm hooks up with West Indian Archie, played Delroy Lindo (Get Shorty, The Devil's Advocate, Broken Arrow), who is a local bigshot and numbers runner. He becomes Archie's main man, and begins to prosper in the criminal life. But Archie also introduces him to heroin, and Malcolm and Sophia begin powdering their noses pretty regularly. When Malcolm lays a bet with Archie, and it hits, he asks Archie for the payoff. Archie tells him he never made the bet (they were pretty stoned when it happened), and they have a falling out. To avoid being killed by Archie's men, they lam it with Shorty who takes them to where he's been living in Boston.
Once there, they quickly get together a little crew and go on a robbery binge. But as usual, crime doesn't pay unless you are in government, and they get popped. Malcolm ends up doing ten years hard time. Its here in jail that Malcolm meets Baines, played by Albert Hall (Apocalypse Now, Devil in a Blue Dress, Get on the Bus), who is different from any black man he's ever met. After an extended period in solitary confinement and in withdrawal, Malcolm is ripe to be picked and Baines makes his move. He courts Malcolm and eventually converts him to Islam. As is often the case, the biggest sinners make the most zealous converts, and Malcolm is no exception. He's an intelligent and willing student, and gets the attention of the leader of the Black Muslims, Elijah Muhammad, played by Al Freeman, Jr. (Seven Hours to Judgement, Down in the Delta, A Fable.)
When Malcolm gets out of jail, he immediately joins the organization, and rises rapidly. He eventually becomes the national spokesman for the Black Muslim organization, and their most visible mouthpiece. Everything seems to be going well. He marries a good Muslim woman, Betty Shabazz, played by Angela Bassett (Contact, Strange Days, Boyz in the Hood), and becomes a husband, a father, and a respected person in his community. But it's never that easy, is it? The zealous and righteous Malcolm has no perspective on the effects that his work is having on others in the organization who see him as taking some of their spotlight. Jealousy and intrigue continue to grow while he crosses the country tirelessly to spread the word.
When Betty finally forces Malcolm to face the rumors of Muhammad's philandering and the inequitable distribution of wealth in the organization, even then his faith is such that he continues forward. But eventually, the influence of the other ministers pushes him to the side and he leaves to go out on his own. At this point he makes a pilgrimage to Mecca, which all Muslims are supposed to make at least once if they can. Here, he discovers how provincial his view has been. He comes to realize that, because of the specific situation that exists in the US, he has incorrectly split the world into Black and White. But the US is not the world, and here he meets white Muslims with whom he shares common beliefs and with whom he drinks from the same cup.
Returning to the US, he begins to soften his views and put the perspective more where it belonged. He stops calling leaders like Dr. King "Uncle Toms" and widens his appeals for help to other racial groups. But it is too late, because radical forces in the Black Muslim community now consider him dangerous to their view of the world, and are conspiring to assassinate him, which they eventually do (in 1965 I believe). One of the most beautiful moments in the film comes as Malcolm, almost in a trance from the stress of constant harassment and lack of sleep, goes to the theater where he is about to be assassinated, while a gorgeous soul tune of the era plays in the background. Definitely a chill bumps moment.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic video on this DVD is interesting. It starts off very dark and quite soft. As the movie progresses, it gets lighter and sharper. By the end, it is very sharp and crisp. I'm not sure if this was purposeful and intended to represent Malcolm's own journey from darkness into light, or what. I know that this film was made on a wing and a prayer, and that only contributions by wealthy individuals as the movie progressed kept it moving. So perhaps the progression in quality just graphs alongside the improvement in the financial situation of the project, and I'm just reading too much into it. Either way, be prepared for a quite murky first half hour or so.
The 5.1 audio is good enough. The vocals are a little muddled at times, but overall it's understandable. The surrounds aren't used a lot, though in one scene where the camera pans around from between a group of street preachers, you can hear them move around you. There's a little bit of action in this film, but mostly it's a talky. When a gunshot rings out, you will probably jump as bad as I did. I found the soundtrack overly sharp and engaged the 5.1 THX processing on the Lexicon to smooth it out a bit.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For such an important film, the extras are pretty much nada. This was disappointing. I'd very much have liked to hear Spike Lee in a commentary track, particularly on a project that was obviously so personal to him. I think he could have provided a huge amount of insight into the film and the characters portrayed.
As mentioned above, the video is quite soft and dark in the early parts of the film. Whether this is art or simply due to limited finances, its still the way it is. But, by about halfway through, it becomes much better and the last part is very nice looking.
I think that Spike Lee made a small mistake in the ending of the film. In my opinion, the assassination of Malcolm should have been the end; maybe a voiceover from Washington over some images of the real Malcolm X would have been appropriate. But Lee chose to pound the point home with a kind of hokey montage that kind of says what the movie already said much more elegantly. Not that I disagree with what is said, but I think that Malcolm's story was enough. The rest really just ruined the atmosphere that the end of the actual film left me in.
I found this film to be extremely powerful. It has all the necessary ingredients: A good director, powerful actors, and a story of the epic struggle of good and evil, on a large and small scale. You can't do much better than that. Though I'm sure it sugar coats things a bit and takes some poetic license, everyone not familiar with Malcolm X would do well to watch it and at least have some understanding of the man and the times. Though much of his life was wasted in crime, and the rest somewhat wasted on an agenda of segregation that was really just a reflection of the very thing that killed his own father, he had a profound impact on this country. And though his legacy does not match that of Dr King's, it certainly has outlived and outshined that of those who took his life.
Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett give outstanding performances here. I personally believe that Washington in particular should have gotten an Oscar for his role. He really nails the performance overall, and gives some incredibly stirring renditions of some of Malcolm's speeches. And in this case, the film is made even more realistic by the fact that Washington has a relatively close physical resemblance to the historical figure. So you don't even have to strain your imagination much to believe that he really is Malcolm X.
So I strongly recommend this film, both for the socially conscious and historically relevant message it delivers and also for great entertainment value. Though its a very powerful and serious film overall, don't assume that its all dead serious. There are funny moments as well. If it had just had some extras, it would have been a very high scorer.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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