Judge Patrick Bromley is determined to review Spike Lee's landmark biopic by any means necessary.
By any means necessary.
Spike Lee's epic biography of the controversial figure gets an upgrade from its original bare-bones release courtesy of Warner Bros., this time as a special edition complete with director's commentary and some incredible supplemental features. The question is: Is it worth the double-dip?
Facts of the Case
Malcolm X follows the transformation of street hood Malcolm Little (Denzel Washington, He Got Game, Man On Fire) into the Black Nationalist leader Malcolm X: his imprisonment as a young man; his discovery of the Nation of Islam while in jail; his conversion to the Muslim faith and service to the leader, Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr., Black Like Me); his rise to power and leadership within the black community of the 1960s; and his eventual assassination.
Spike Lee's Malcolm X is, simply put, a masterpiece. It could not have been made by any other director—at least, not as it exists here. No one else could have brought such passion, such vision, such militancy, such patience and reverence to the subject without turning the film into a simple-minded love letter. Make no mistake, the film is a love letter (a notion cemented by Ossie Davis' recreation of his graceful original eulogy near the movie's end), but one that is grounded in humanity and respect. Any viewer with the patience and mind to see the film is likely to arrive at a similar conclusion—if not love, then certainly respect and understanding. This is a fully realized portrait of one of the most complex and influential historical figures of the last hundred years.
The movie opens with one of the most incendiary and powerful shots of the 1990s, as an American flag burns down until all that's left is the shape of a large letter "X." This image is intercut with footage of the LAPD/Rodney King beating in a juxtaposition that I would argue isn't entirely successful (allowing the flag image to continue in one interrupted take would have been more effective, in this reviewer's opinion). I could also, argue, though, that my feelings on the shot are inconsequential. Whether I not I feel he succeeds doesn't matter; what is important to Spike Lee is that point has been made. That's true of so much of Lee's material—including several moments in Malcolm X—he doesn't require that we agree with him, only that he be allowed to speak.
The film covers (and is essentially about) Malcolm's conversion to the Muslim faith and eventual rise to power among the Nation of Islam, but writer-director Lee wisely opts to go back further than that—his eyes are wider, his scope larger. Lee's film begins when his subject was still Malcolm Little, a petty thief and common hoodlum who spends his days straightening his hair ("It looks white, don't it?") and his nights decked out in zoot suits, dancing to swing music in the local nightclub. Lee pulls out all the cinematic stops at his disposal in these passages, staging sequences to resemble the Hollywood musicals of the 1940s—the images splash across the screen in vibrant color, and DP Ernest Dickerson's photographs everything in a kind of hallucinatory haze that looks and feels like a memory.
There are some who have suggested that the decision to begin at this point in Little's life is a mistake—that it is frivolous or that it makes an already too-long film (202 minutes) unnecessarily longer. What those critics fail to understand is that these sequences are necessary to the story Lee has chosen to tell—they cast the rest of the movie in the appropriate light. Not only is it important to understand who Malcolm was when attempting to understand who he became, but it gives his later-life views a richer context. Without these scenes, Malcolm's speeches and attitudes about how blacks were still being enslaved by "tools" of the white man (alcohol, drugs, women) would be nothing more than pointing the finger. With the scenes included, we understand that he's talking to his former self.
This first third of the film does contain, however, one of several miscalculations Lee makes during the course of the film. This one involves the director himself: He casts himself in the somewhat important role of Malcolm's best friend and fellow hood, Shorty. Lee has been effective acting in his own films previously (She's Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing both come to mind), but he is not an accomplished actor, and his scenes in Malcolm X are a self-conscious distraction. It may be because he's acting opposite Denzel Washington, who's giving the performance of his career, or because of the historical significance of the material; either way, the casting decision is an error. Lee's performance doesn't derail the movie, but it is indicative of the kinds of gestures the director occasionally makes that keep the film from being flawless. Then again, we don't see Spike Lee films for their perfection, but for their fierceness and their glorious rough edges.
As Malcolm's journey progresses, Lee slowly reins it in; like the title character, the filmmaking becomes more disciplined. The style becomes less self-aware, the color palette more stark. Lee dispenses with the flourishes so that we might focus on Malcolm's transformation and eventual message. That's not to suggest that this is a "message" film; it isn't. This is a portrait of the messenger, and the focus on his message is only such because the man himself was so single-mindedly devoted to his cause. We still get to see Malcolm as a husband (his relationship with Betty Shabazz, played by Angela Bassett (Strange Days), is gentle and sweet), Malcolm the family man, Malcolm the friend.
By the end of the film, as the filmmaking style begins to mimic Oliver Stone's JFK (using multiple film stocks and switching from a traditional narrative feel to a documentary/newsreel approach), Lee and Washington are in total control of the material. We know exactly where the story is headed (that knowledge makes the sequence set to Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" even more unforgettably heartbreaking), but that doesn't make it any more tragic. The director and star have given us a portrait of Malcolm X that far transcends the traditional biopic; never is Malcolm fully glamorized nor demonized, creating an unflinchingly honest look at a man deserving of our respect, our attention, our hearts, and our tears. Supporters of Malcolm will be thankful to see a film worthy of the man himself; detractors may finally begin to understand just who he was. The movie is that important.
This is the film for which Denzel Washington should have won his Academy Award®, and when I think of the fact that he won it for the decent-at-best Training Day, I practically want to cry. His work in Malcolm X is one of the best performances of the last 20 years—possibly in all of cinema. His portrayal of Malcolm X is nothing short of perfect; it goes beyond simply imitation (though he looks and sounds extraordinarily similar to the man himself) and takes on a life that is totally its own. From sly to dangerous to desperate to repentant to strong to powerful to militant to lonely to doomed, Washington makes every transformation organic and utterly believable. It's a brilliant performance.
Warner Bros.' new Special Edition of Malcolm X Warner Bros. delivers a significant improvement over their original supplement-free version. Both the picture and sound have been remastered, and while the original edition was acceptable, the Special Edition is better. The film, which is spread out over two discs (with a break that, while still somewhat jarring, seems to come at an appropriate point), is presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The picture looks fantastic; though the early sequences appear soft, don't be fooled—that is cinematographer Ernest Dickerson's intent. What really comes across in these scenes is the lush color palette, leaping off the screen like classic Technicolor. The video, like the photography, gets sharper as the film goes on—by the time the heavily black-and-white end passages arrive, the image is razor sharp in its detail. Lee has always been an extremely visual director, and the DVD does justice to this, his most visual film. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track also serves the film quite well, keeping Malcolm's all-important voice front and center, and effectively delivering composer Terence Blanchard's brilliant, fiery score.
The greatest improvement added to this Special Edition is the bounty of extras Warner has included, balancing material involving the making of the film with historical material that helps flesh out the life of Malcolm X beyond what's contained in the film. First up is a commentary track, where Lee is joined by DP Ernest Dickerson, editor Barry Alexander, and costume designer Ruth Carter. Spike's commentaries have never been his strongest suit, typically made up of long silences and reactions to what's happening on screen, and while I would like to say that his talk on Malcolm X is different, I cannot. It helps that he's joined by crewmembers—they fill in what might otherwise be empty spaces—but the track isn't as good as I would have liked it to be.
Rounding out the filmmaking aspects of the supplemental section are a number of deleted scenes, introduced by the director, and a 30-minute retrospective documentary about the making of the film. The deleted scenes are a welcome addition, but don't add much to the experience of the film—Lee was right to excise them, as they would have thrown off the pacing of the movie (which, despite its length, never drags). The making-of retrospective is the best of the film-based extras, tracing the movie's origins (Lee had to fight for the rights to make the film, eventually convincing director Norman Jewison—who was set to direct—that he was the right man for the job) and the extremely tumultuous relationship Lee had with the studio. The making of the film has by now become something of a legend, with stories of how the director (having been locked out of the editing room after the film had gone over budget) turned to leaders in the African American community (Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey) for donations so that he could finish the film, overshadowing the picture itself upon its initial release. Now, with more than ten years having passed since that time, it just makes for an incredibly involving and inspiring story; Spike got the film made, in the words of Malcolm X, by any means necessary.
Located on the second disc of the set is the Special Edition's best extra, the Academy Award®-nominated feature length documentary, Malcolm X (1972). Though Lee's film does a marvelous job of painting a portrait of the man, it is still a dramatic film—colored by the screenplay, the director's input, and the performances. The documentary, though, presents a more straightforward look at Malcolm X—while it lacks the layers of Lee's film, it provides a direct examination of the events of Malcolm's life. The historical material included in the documentary puts the Spike Lee film in better context (not to mention reaffirming just how good Washington's performance is), serving as the perfect supplement to the 1992 film. Kudos to Warner Bros. for showing foresight and good judgment in including the documentary as part of the set.
Malcolm X might not be Spike Lee's best film—that honor still belongs to Do the Right Thing—but it is his most narratively ambitious and most technically accomplished. What is perhaps most impressive about the movie is that Lee never sacrifices deeply personal examination or storytelling in favor of epic; with as much ground as he manages to cover in his three-hours-plus film, he never loses sight of the man at its center.
A beautifully honest tribute to a complicated man, as well as a brilliant and passionate piece of filmmaking, Malcolm X joins Robert Altman's Short Cuts and Oliver Stone's JFK on a short list of the best films of the 1990s.
Not guilty. Not by a longshot.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary Featuring Writer-Director Spike Lee, Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, Editor Barry Alexander, and Costume Designer Ruth Carter
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