Malcolm X Reviews
Lee uses X's autobiography, penned by Alex Haley, as the source material. While this renders the film an easy target for critics who want a more objective look at this historical figure, I believe Lee, walking in step with the subject of the film, smartly becomes the provocateur.
Malcolm X was not an easy figure to wrap your head around. With seemingly equal capacity for both love and vitriol, a film that tried to focus on one facet of his personality, while consequently ignoring the many other ones that made this man so enigmatic, would feel dishonest. Lets face it, this film was bound to rustle some feathers, and I think it was a smart move to let the man speak for himself.
And how could you review the film without mentioning the great Denzel? How he manages to pull off such a complex character with such ease is absolutely stunning. That he lost the Oscar to Pacino is still one of the most egregious crimes the academy has ever committed.
While Lee's career may be wading in troubled water as of now, Malcolm X gives me hope that he will soon rebound.
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.
I'm not gonna say that Malcolm X's life is underwhelming, but I'm not quite sure that the "short" version should be 200 minutes. Well, sure enough, although most of the film is tight, when it goes loose, it falls out, and you with it, because after a while, watching a bunch of black people dancing at a night club get unengaging enough, let alone when you're actually trying to tell a story so much that it eventually loses steam. Of course, what does more to damage this film isn't the looseness, but the tightness, as well as the style. The overstylized storytelling is at its worst during the flashbacks to Little's childhood, where things feel so devoid of genuineness, due to everything feeling so tacked-on and overwhelmed with histrionic energy, especially when it comes to the unbelievably overbearing score. Still, just because that's where the overstylizing is at its most intense, that doesn't mean that overstylizing doesn't plage much of the film, because there are countless moments of "Wait what was that?" or "Wow, that just came and went", and sure, it's not like a meditative film, where overstylizing taints the film's very aura and leaves it to limp along, almost entirely devoid of substance, but there are still too many moments theatrics, and it really intensifies the impact of the final blow that keeps this film from being truly impressive: Spike Lee's underwhelming execution. The film is well-produced, runs a mammoth length and is with a story so worth telling it's unreal, and the latter fact is one known too much by Spike Lee, so much so that even with all of the forced theatrics, he only wants to "tell" the story of Malcolm X, rather than revive it, which isn't to say that this film is totally vacant of emotion, but it is to say that the story structure is too conventional and safe to the point of being messy, leaving every transition in between arcs in Little's life - from his criminal life, his conversion to Muslim and, of course, his leadership of the Black Panthers - to feel inorganic and somewhat inconsistent, because Lee is so desperate to keep Little's story as faithful as possible that he forgets to truly captivate his audience, leaving the film to run on only so much juice. However, the film is nowhere near bad, for although Spike Lee's dream project is all but ruined by his dreaming just a little too big, it's still a fascinating story of a man's entire mindset changing as he goes from being a following nobody to a leading icon, and while it stands to be executed better, it's still an experience worth having, especially considering that, as I said, it's pretty darn well-produced.
What makes the production designs so impressive is the fact that they are subtle, being elaborate enough for you to really see the time, yet pulled back enough for you to feel the time. There's no overemphasis on the '40s or '50s or '60s, let alone the transitions into all of them, yet they're reconstructed so fashionably, keeping you engaged in the time without it feeling as though it's interrupting the story, only supplementing it. The same can be said about the cinematography, which is subtle and graceful. True, early on, the overemphasis on lighting got to be a bit annoying, but on the whole, the cast of a shadow or a beam of light is played upon subtley, but noticably, and it really supplements the tone on many occasions. I must say that I absolutely dug such scenes as the prison solitary confinement sequence, which is illuminated only by what limited light is salvaged through the feeding doors, and it gives you such a perfect sense of isolation and claustrophbia that strongly reflects and symbolizes the anguish and pain that is falling upon the shoulders of Little, not just in that moment, but many others, which isn't to say that cinematographer Ernest Dickerson is the only one carrying scenes like that, because the real star of this show is, of course, Mr. Denzel Washington. Perhaps they could have done a better casting job for the sake of physcial authenticity, but when it comes to embodying such a layered soul as Mr. Malcolm, few people could do as good of a job as the great Denzel Washington, and sure enough, the atmosphere that Washington emits is powerful, whether he's portraying a hardcore criminal like Detroit Red, a searching soul like El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz or an influential leader like Malcolm X. Spike Lee's heart may be too much in the story for him to really deliver on it, but Washington is layered and riveting in his portrayal of this follower-turned-leader, and it's that portrayal, all but by itself, that makes this film consistently fascinating, compelling, borderline enthralling and genuinely worth watching, because for every occasion of momentary disconnect, it's hard to not find yourself quickly and frequently pulled back in by the subtlety, grace and transformation in Denzel Washington as he brings the iconic Malcolm X back to life.
At the end of the day... or second, or third, or how ever many days it takes you to watch this film, it's hard not to feel a touch thrown-off by moments of overstylizing and looseness, but generally a bit disappointed by Spike Lee's overly conventional, overly safe, periodically inconsistent and ultimately underwhelming storytelling, but what keeps this film an ultimately rewarding one in spite of its flaws is, of course, it's compelling subject matter that is brought to life by subtlety and grace in the production, visual style, but most of all, Denzel Washington, who's layered, transformative and enthralling portrayal of this icon helps perhaps most of all in making "Malcolm X" a frequently and genuinely fascinating and enjoyable study on the life and times of the legendary Mr. Malcolm "El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz"/"Detroit Red"/"X" Little. Jeez, how many names did he have?
3/5 - Good