Director: Spike Lee
Writer: Spike Lee and Arnold Perl
Cinematographer: Ernest Dickerson
Producer: Spike Lee and Marvin Worth
by Jon Cvack
Outside one of my college classes there was a table that often contained a bunch of free books professors no longer wanted, filled with a bunch of boring trash, but eventually led to finding a Malcolm X biography; not the definitive Autobiography of Malcolm X (which this movie is based upon), but rather a scholastic series named “Malcolm X” that I took my time getting to as it looked like it was written by committee rather than any particular expert. While not the greatest biography I ever read, it was incredibly edifying, as I had no idea that Malcolm Little was a criminal for the first quarter of his life before getting sentenced to jail where he converted to Islam, changed his name to Malcolm X and lived a sober life until his assassination. He learned about his heritage and became determined to fight for justice. While Martin Luther King believed in peaceful protest, Malcolm X observed such efforts as ineffective. He believed that while the White Men served in leadership across all reins of government, ordering black men to fight for American values in Vietnam, back home these same Black Men were denied their equal rights, being beaten and hosed down and attacked by dogs as they fought for their own civil liberties. Therefore, if the White Man was willing to commit the hypocrisy of refusing African Americans equal rights, all while sending them to their deaths in the name of freedom, then Malcolm X believe that Black Men had every right to fight back, whether with words or violence.
Just three years prior, Denzel Washington would win his first Oscar for his role in Glory. And while highly deserving, it was a tragedy that while nominated for Malcolm X, he lost to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman - that is, one of the whiter movies made from the period. Washington’s presence is so strong, and his command so frightening that oftentimes his later roles blend into one another. In Malcolm X, though, I no longer saw the performer. Pull up any image of Malcolm X and you see that Washington didn’t just nail his cadence and demeanor, but looks strikingly similar to the guy. Rare is it to watch a film and lose all awareness of the person playing the role. I didn’t think I was watching a story about Malcolm X; I thought I was watching a movie that included Malcolm X.
The story opens up in Brooklyn, where Malcolm Little and his buddy Shorty (Spike Lee; who was surprisingly good) maraud through the streets in their zoot suits, chasing women and causing trouble. Malcolm applies an ointment to his hair to make it straight and more white-like; which causes an exceptionally heavy burning sensation if left on longer than prescribed. The opening sequence contains all of the staples of any biographical film - the foibles, arrogance, and humors of youth, as Malcolm Little and Short stay out all night, drinking, with Malcolm ditching his beautiful black date for a beautiful white woman. Eventually he gets a job as a Pullman Pull Worker, serving the white men in lavish dinners and drinks, attempting to keep the best smile possible. Despising the work he eventually ends up in Boston, taking up petty crime with West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo), getting introduced to cocaine and its dealing, expanding into burglary, before finally getting caught; serving an extensive and unprecedented sentence, mostly because the Short and Malcolm were in the company of white women when they were caught.
They head to jail, and there Malcolm meets a man who explains both the American history of black oppression and the benefits of Islam and the ways a sober life can empower the individual to achieve great things. Malcolm is specifically taken with American Islamic minister Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman, Jr.) who seems to embody the ideals of the perfect man, and unfortunately, I do mean “man” specifically, as one of the drawbacks of the Islamic faith, as far as Malcolm observed, was the subjugation of women, who he believed had little role in the world other than to honor and follow the commands of their husbands. Thus begins the complete, at times offensive, though overall inspiring transformation of Malcolm X from street hoodlum to one of the strongest leaders of the civil rights movement. It is an exceptionally powerful story, seeming more biblical than real. To think of this man would go on to achieve and the reputation he would receive should serve as an inspiration to anyone, and that appears to have been Spike Lee’s exact mission.
Continued to Part 2...
BELOW: Delroy Lindo and Denzel Washington; it competes with Heat
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