Judge Gordon Sullivan is not an American, he is the victim of America!
"We didn't land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us!"—Malcolm X
I once showed the opening of Malcolm X to a group of students—the first scene after the credits, where Spike Lee and Denzel Washington stride across a street in zoot suits. I wanted the students to notice the antique cars, the old-style elevated train car, the zoot suits, the golden-colored cinematography, and conclude the film was trying to clue us in that this scene was historical. When I asked them what we could deduce from the clip we watched, I got a sea of blank faces (which is not unusual). Then one guy raised his hand and said it's obvious Spike Lee's character is a pimp. I let him run with it and asked why. He said it was the zoot suit and the feather in Spike's cap. My point is not that this kid is racist; rather, he probably went through the images of black men he was familiar with (rapper, sports star, and criminal) and decided it's hard to rap or play basketball in a zoot suit so he must be a pimp.
What this story highlights for me is how little has changed in the representation of African-Americans in the media both since Malcolm X's assassination in 1963 and since Spike Lee directed the film in 1992. Though there are more options for black actors than ever, there are still a lot of stereotypes floating around. Spike Lee's film goes a long way towards correcting those stereotypes. Because of the continuing importance of Malcolm X in the history of American civil rights struggles and Spike Lee's excellent take on his life story, this film fully earns its new deluxe Blu-ray digibook presentation.
Facts of the Case
Spike Lee's Malcolm X follows the young Malcolm (Denzel Washington, Glory) from his young days as a small-time crook, through his conversion to the Nation of Islam, and up to his fighting for civil rights.
Spike Lee ended his famous Do the Right Thing with quotes from both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. They represent important poles of the Civil Rights movement. Part of that contrast is ideological; MLK stood for peace, Malcolm X for necessary violence. More important for me, though, is that MLK was safe and saintly, like a kindly father-shepard; while Malcolm X was dangerous, like an elder brother who just got back from the Marines. Both would protect you, but there was always something more fierce about Malcolm X. Also, there was always something a little bit more down-to-earth about Malcolm X, something that was easier to relate to.
It was only after watching Spike Lee's superb biopic I realized what was truly appealing about Malcolm X. In an age where politicians have to pick a single idea and run it into the ground or risk being seen as "whishy-washy," Malcolm X was capable of changing his mind without fear of consequences. Lee's film dramatizes Malcolm's turn away from crime and fervent conversion to the Nation of Islam. However, Lee doesn't shy away from Malcolm's eventual repudiation of the Nation and his conversion to a more Koran-based Islam. He also shows the way Malcolm changed his mind with regards to MLK's peaceful protesting style.
These complexities in Malcolm's life and character give the story its narrative backbone, tracing his life from the early days of crime to his eventual death. Because so much changed in his life, and he lived through such tumultuous times in race relations, Malcolm's story has a compelling arc. Despite the extended run time of the film (over three hours) it moves quickly. From that opening tracking shot of Spike and Denzel crossing the street, through the photos of prominent African-Americans wearing X caps that plays during the credits, the film feels like it moves at a breakneck pace.
No discussion of Malcolm X would be complete without a discussion of Denzel's performance. It's absolutely central to the role, and Denzel gives it his all. I love Al Pacino—I even love Scent of a Woman—but Denzel was robbed at the Oscars in 1993. His role is focused, nuanced, and appropriate in tone to the rest of the film. He's fiery and charming when he needs to be, somber and reserved at other times. This is a master-class in acting that does justice to a complicated historical figure.
Malcolm X (Blu-ray) Digibook is worthy of a film this important. The set includes the high definition version of the film, with a standard definition DVD and bonus features on a second disc, both of which are housed in a book that includes an essay on the film along with stills/production shots. The 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded widescreen transfer is excellent, though not astounding. Detail is strong throughout, color saturation is spot on, and black levels are deep without losing detail. My only complaint is that the image lacks the "pop" of more recent hi-def releases. Still, it's a wonderful film to look at. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is similarly impressive. The dialogue is clean and well balanced with the excellent score. Surrounds get consistent use throughout the film, creating a dynamic soundscape.
The extras are ported over from the excellent two-disc DVD release. Things start with a commentary track featuring Lee, his cinematographer Ernst Dickerson, editor Barry Alexander Brown, and costume designer Ruth Carter. Recorded separately, the group keeps the track lively despite the running time, with lots of info on the production side of things and how the film came to be made. The Blu-ray also houses a making-of featurette and some deleted scenes with commentary by Lee. The DVD houses a documentary on Malcolm X (narrated by James Earl Jones) that provides all the context one could wish for, with archival footage that captures just how excellent Washington's performance really is.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As they say, haters gonna hate, and both Spike Lee and Malcolm X have their detractors. The film isn't likely to win any new fans to either Lee or Malcolm X, and quibblers might object to the documentary not being released in hi-def.
Do the Right Thing will probably be remembered as Spike Lee's masterpiece, but Malcolm X is at least as good a film, and its subject more important. It's perfectly deserving of the deluxe treatment here. Fans of the film are going to want to upgrade their previous editions for the improved audio/visual quality, even if the extras are the same. Anyone who's a fan of Denzel Washington owes it to themselves to see this flick, and this Blu-ray is the perfect way to do it.
By any means necessary, see Malcolm X. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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