Malcolm X is a lot of things: controversial, bold, procedural, and informative. From the audacious opening shot that reimagines and redefines the classic Patton image of the American flag, to the belabored attempt in the end to tie everything together with school childen, this film is defiant and unafraid to stand for its message. It's a spiritually enriching testament to the human capacity for change -- and surely Spike Lee's most universally appealing film. An engrossing mosaic of history, myth and sheer conjecture, this ambitious epic manages to sustain itself for 3 hours 21 minutes, and also overcomes an early frivolity of tone and Lee's intrusiveness to achieve a stature befitting its subject.
Lee, whose enormous affection for his hero suffuses his work, nevertheless resists the temptation to sanitize Malcolm as Richard Attenborough did Gandhi. The civil rights leader, as eloquently portrayed by Denzel Washington, emerges as an immensely likable human being -- a onetime black separatist who overcame his own prejudices. Still, this biopic will ruffle a few white feathers -- and probably a few black ones too; that's a given -- but Malcolm X addresses itself to all Americans, reminding us none too gently with its opening footage of the Rodney King beating that the work is never done.
Though the film covers 40 of the most turbulent years American society, it seems oddly isolated from its time and place, almost as if the characters were trapped in a snow globe. This segregation may be purposeful, even astute, on Lee's part, but it denies Malcolm his historical underpinnings. And there's a theatricality to the crowd and street scenes that give the film the look of a Broadway play.
Lee brings all manner of styles and moods to the film's four chapters -- Malcolm's troubled youth, his conversion to Islam, his ministry and his pilgrimage to Mecca. It's Washington's formidable task to pull all of them all together, to reconcile the disparate Malcolms, which he does with uncanny ease. To make sense of the internal struggle, it's essential to know the tragedies of Malcolm's childhood, as recounted here in the Lee screenplay based on Alex Haley's "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."
The result is utterly engrossing. Denzel, in what may be the finest performance of his career (this is the film to show people who doubt his versatility), imbues Malcolm X with fire, bravado, intellect, insecurity, pride, and love (both misplaced and direct) in equal measure. Lee once said that, in film school, making a film adaptation of Malcom X's life was a dream project. The pure, unfettered passion goes into every frame, and the result is one of the most fascinating and nuanced biopics ever made. A complex film about a complex man.