Spike Lee called 1992's Malcolm X "the picture I was born to make," and star Denzel Washington referred to the titular civil-rights leader as "the role of a lifetime." They're both right: taking inspiration from Lawrence of Arabia and empowerment from Oliver Stone's 1991 JFK, Lee directed, co-produced, co-wrote, and appears in this masterful, three-hour plus biopic, one that was shamefully neglected by the Oscars (nominations went only to Washington and cotume designer Ruth E. Carter, neither of whom took home the gold). It's pretty much inconceivable that anyone would greenlight this picture today, and Lee had to fight tooth and nail to get it made properly then, but Malcolm X is about as thoughtful and resplendent as the biopic form gets.
Arnold Perl and Lee's adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X (novelist James Baldwin, who cowrote an earlier draft with Perl goes uncredited) incorporates judicious swatches of autobiographical narration. Ever the provocateur, Lee brilliantly opens the film with a literally incendiary set of images: a burning American flag and footage of the Rodney King beating, providing a context of unending African-American struggle and justified rage. From there, Lee takes us to Boston during "the war years," where Malcolm Little, a.k.a. "Detroit Red" had yet to embrace his true calling. Decked out in zoot suits, Malcolm and pal Shorty (Lee) are small-time crooks and big-time players who become embroiled in a numbers racket with Harlem gangster West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo) and thievery with white moll Sophia (Kate Vernon).
The resulting ten-year prison sentence leads to mentorship under fellow prisoner Baines (Albert Hall) and self-education marking a turn toward sociopolitical and philosophical enlightenment (though also the white-devil cultishness of the Nation of Islam). Malcolm stretches his muscles—thrillingly, defiantly, and dangerously—under the too-tight wing of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman, Jr.) and with the help of Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett), credited with helping Malcolm to see and confront the Nation’s corruption and betrayal. X rises to prominence, in part by leading a successful protest march targeting police brutality; ultimately he breaks free of the Nation of Islam to maintain his autonomy as a leading light of the civil rights movement, informed by a spiritual rebirth on his pilgrimage to Mecca. Ironically, this rebirth shortly precedes his death, artfully accompanied here by Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come."
Lee's film never flags in interest. As per his custom, Lee steeps the material in African-American history (slavery, Marcus Garvey, the Lionel Hampton Band, Roseland, Joe Louis, Billie Holiday, Jackie Robinson, MLK, Medgar Evers) and cultural mores (barbershop/white hair “conk,” the impropriety of relationships with white girls, the notion of “House Negro” versus “Field Negro”), examining with fascination the volatile intersection of black and white cultures (the Klan, X's controversial comment on the Kennedy assassination as "chickens coming home to roost"). Though's the source autobiography has been accused of obfuscation, Lee's honest and ambitious attempt to take the "big picture" view of X's character and his meaning to American history humbles other biopics. Ever productive, X makes a moving trajectory from lost to angry to self-knowing, and Washington expertly renders X's emotional nuances and his potency as a leader and orator ("Bamboozled!").
Under Lee's direction—which incorporates tracking and crane shots as visual motifs—Ernest Dickerson conjures dazzling photography, Carter and production designer Wynn Thomas lend beautiful period detail, and Terence Blanchard establishes his place as an heir to the American theme-making of Aaron Copland. The exhilarating centerpiece protest-march sequence—highlighted by Blanchard's cue "Fruit of Islam"—best demonstrates the intersection of these talents (and then there's the astonishing dance sequence to the Hampton standard “Flying Home”). Lee gathers a constellation of great actors and political figures to inhabit the film (James McDaniel, Christopher Plummer, Peter Boyle, Roger Guenveur Smith, Karen Allen, David Patrick Kelly, Giancarlo Esposito, Richard Schiff, John Sayles, Reverend Al Sharpton, Bobby Seale, and William Kunstler), but Hall and Freeman especially shine as X's dubious mentors.
Getting very nearly the last word (an honor granted to Nelson Mandela), Ossie Davis recreates in voice-over his eulogy from Malcolm's funeral: "They will say that he is of hate; a a fanatic, a racist who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say unto them: Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him?" Good question. Lee found himself on the defensive yet again for Malcolm X, but those who "really" examine the film will find a clear-eyed and moving portrait of an important man in American history.
Warner gives Malcolm X its propers in a Blu-ray Digibook special edition. The hi-def transfer does a fine job of capturing the film's theatrical look. Despite the film's expansive running time, compression issues don't seem to be a problem (that is, after all, one of the selling points of Blu-ray), color and contrast are true, and detail and textures are palpable, particularly once the film has emerged from its sepia-toned, intentionally soft first act. The image isn't always perfect (edge enhancement is, at times, noticeable), but undoubtedly this is the best-yet presentation of the film on home video. The same can be said of the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix, which doesn't miss a trick: both sound effects and Blanchard's score give LFE reason to rumble (very convincingly), and dialogue is always entirely clear.
The 2-disc set includes on a DVD the 1972 feature-length documentary Malcolm X, narrated by James Earl Jones and written and directed by Arnold Perl, the co-writer of Lee's film. While an entirely worthy piece on its own, this also makes a fantastic supplement for its wealth of archival footage of events and speeches recreated in Lee's film.
The audio commentary by director Spike Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, editor Barry Alexander Brown, costume designer Ruth E. Carter and others takes a collage tack, ably covering the bases of the production and demonstrating the depth of research and knowledge brought to bear on the film.
"By Any Means Necessary: The Making of Malcolm X" (30:28, SD) offers a concise and candid look at the film's making.
Also included are nine "Deleted Scenes" (20:54, SD), with "Introduction by Spike Lee" (1:04, SD), and the film's "Trailer" (2:51, SD).
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