Whenever a movie runs over 2 hours, it immediately comes under some level of extra scrutiny. Such is the case with Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, which actually has a run time of over 3 hours. To do this, he had to call upon many prominent black celebrities to raise funds when the studio budget had been spent. To this day he thanks Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan, Oprah, Prince and others for their donations.
Malcolm X, an adaptation of X’s autobiography, was originally slated to be directed by a white director. Spike Lee went well out of his way to obtain directorial control of the project. After securing the position, he did hundreds of interviews and other research to prepare. For his part, Denzel Washington totally changed his lifestyle choices. He didn’t eat pork, smoke, or drink in preparation for the role. This level of dedication on the part of both Spike and Denzel is not surprising, it shows throughout the film. It has been recounted by Lee that Washington would often continue speeches beyond the script channeling the spirit of Malcolm X.
The film immediately solidifies its connection to modern social ills by using Rodney King footage during the opening credits. It also lampoons the famous speech from Patton (1970) by prominently displaying the American flag while Washington, as X, recites a speech sharply criticizing the collective white man for centuries of violence. From here, the film takes off.
A great quality of Malcolm X is both the pacing and timeline used throughout the film. It jumps back and forth at times, particularly in the first act, keeping the story fresh, interesting, and engaging. I will say, however, that a few of the scenes early in the film feel a bit gimmicky. In an attempt to recreate Harlem in the 1940’s, there are a few instances in which I felt Spike Lee went too far over the top. This film was the first instance in my watching where he felt “in the way” in some of his scenes. That being said, his overall acting contribution in the film worked out.
Speaking of performance, there are a quite a few notable ones in the film. Denzel as Malcolm is of course excellent, particularly as the film develops. Angela Bassett as his wife Betty Shabazz is compelling and has great chemistry with Denzel. As well, Al Freeman Jr. in the role of Elijah Muhammad both looked and sounded incredibly close to his real life counterpart.
I would like to note that about a year ago or so I did read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Several years prior to that I watched the film, with almost no knowledge of Malcolm whatsoever. If I recall correctly, at least two major elements stuck out in my mind that were not included in the movie. First was his relationship with his brothers and sisters much past early childhood. If I recall, they played a role in his joining the Nation of Islam (NOI) as opposed to the composite character of Baines (Albert Hall) a prisoner used to represent many real life people. This was obviously done to make a more cohesive story, however, I think it may have been better to use his family members. Also, midway through the film a white college student asks him if there is anything she can do to help his movement. This is based on a real event in the book. However, later in the book X expresses how that moment encapsulates the regret he has for many of his actions as part of the NOI. The second half of the story is not explicitly told in the film.
Despite these somewhat notable exclusions, anyone expecting the film to cover the entirety of the book and his life is aiming too high. It’s understandable that certain things had to be changed in order to keep the film at a cohesive pace. It’s still a mammoth achievement that serves both to inspire and encourage further research on an individual basis. Clearly Spike Lee had prepared himself above and beyond what was necessary, which ultimately resulted in a masterfully dynamic portrayal of a complex man.
This is the first Spike Lee film I’ve reviewed not to be scored by his father Bill. Even so, there are still many great songs on the soundtrack. This includes jazz sage John Coltrane and a memorable montage using Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come. Unlike the past 3 films, it also doesn’t have music underlying the entirety of the movie. This clearly makes sense being a historical drama and not a fictional story.
The film concludes with several sequences. There is a heartbreaking eulogy read by legendary actor Ossie Davis, as well as a short speech given by Nelson Mandela among other scenes. While both of these elements were excellent on their own, overall it felt the ending lingered a bit too long. Each piece individually stood alone well, but together felt indecisive.
Even with some criticism, I highly recommend Malcolm X. At over 3 hours, a majority of the film will leave viewers on the edge of their seat. Students of X or those with little background info will equally gain something positive from viewing it. I would recommend reading his autobiography as well. As a historical figure that has been compartmentalized by mainstream historians and commentators, it is essential to gain a perspective from both Lee and X himself. Paring the film and autobiography may inspire one to study other prominent black leaders and intellectuals, I know it had that effect on me.