Before getting distracted by side projects, Allan Houston, and self-parody, Spike Lee was a great young filmmaker, and every release was an event. From Do the Right Thing to Jungle Fever, Lee’s movies addressed race from a perspective never before seen in American multiplexes, and their energy, style, and stories evoked joy and rage from their audiences.
Lee was also a star himself. Even when not behind (or, sometimes, in front of) his camera, Lee’s appreciation of black radical movements drew heat from conservatives, laurels from liberals, dedication from American minority communities, and attention from everyone.
And so it was that Lee fulfilled his destiny by creating Malcolm X, a movie that was discussed more on Sunday morning news shows than on Siskel and Ebert. Conservative critics bashed it as ‘hero worship.’ They missed the point.
Malcolm X certainly isn’t your average icon-as-human-being biopic. It’s more a tribute to the lasting influence of a man who was powerful and important even when misguided. The three-hour-plus movie roughly follows the order of the Black nationalist leader’s life as played out in Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but it also spares many of Malcolm’s more serious warts (like his traditionalist treatment of women).
What makes the movie a spectacular success are the immense talents of Lee at the peak of his career, Denzel Washington’s star turn as Malcolm (easily his best performance until Training Day came along nine years later), and the film’s long view of history.
Washington’s richly layered portrayal of Malcolm, as he progresses from thug to prison convert to angry Nation of Islam leader to messenger of peace, is absolutely electrifying. His performance especially peaks during the final act, which creates an impermeable sense of doom as it focuses on Malcolm’s last day before his assassination by forces allegedly inside the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm X is too long, too imperfectly paced, too superficial in some places, and too obsessive in others, but it’s also highly entertaining, illuminating, and deeply inspiring. Far from worshipping its subject, Malcolm X shows the hero as a man, and the man as a critical part of the cultural progress of 20th-century America.
Now available on special edition DVD, the film includes commentary by Lee and members of his crew, deleted scenes, and two documentaries: One about the making of the film and a 1972 archival feature about Malcolm X the man.