The grandness that is Spike Lee’s masterful monolith to the life and times of Malcolm X is a tight blend of Hollywood polish and calculated performances rich with emotion and burdened with message-making. The film embraces as much as it alienates history, often forcing truth and fiction together to create a hybrid of the two, something dangerously close to explosive, palpable and flawed. In a film that straddles history books and the blood-red gutters of racism, indifference and war it’s impossible to know where Lee’s voice begins and ends, where it intersects with Malcolm X, becomes one, changes and lives in the viewer. One might question his motives as much as the success and failures in a film of the scope and importance, one that would have been more appropriately labeled “inspired by the truth, enlivened for history’s sake”. Nevertheless, Lee’s film transcends any real criticism of form and filmmaker bravado, elevated to the point of experience, a film that demands your audience and rewards your commitment.
Malcolm X was a project that Lee set out to make very early in his career, back when he was still in film school. The film sparked almost as much controversy before the first day of principal photography as it did during production, everything from budgetary wars with the studio to creative financing decisions, problems with Lee’s dramatic license in place of historical accuracy. Lee’s signature aesthetic is born from his confrontational exploration of race, identity and condemnation of historically volatile periods of social unrest and civil injustices. For Malcolm X he rewrote the screenplay because he felt much of what needed to be said in respect to a life story of one of his histories most galvanizing and charismatic civil rights leaders wasn’t in the early drafts. It is precisely Lee’s talent for characters, expressionistic cinematography and sharp dialogue that is at the heart of all his films and this story is no different. In a film about race and relationships, identity and perceptions, flawed and complicated seem perfect companions, conflicting and apropos from the incendiary style and curious career of one ofHollywood’s most talented.
Malcolm X is an epic film as much about Malcolm X the man as the times of his life then and now. Lee makes the most of every frame, lovingly blurring the line between performance and presence, most prominent in the connective tissue of the film, the brazen politicking that digs away at factual, family and friends of the slain civil rights leader. Deeper still the film runs long but fine performances from Denzel Washington and Lee himself give the narrative buoyancy and impact. Fortunately the film makes use of the telling of a life story, populating the film with sheer entertainment like the elaborate dancehall sequences and travels that document the trips Malcolm X made to Africa and Egypt. Where the film will surely unsettle, and eventually enamor is the sense of people and place inherent in all of Spike Lee’s films, an auteur every much as talented and articulate as Oliver Stone, Martin Scorcese and Woody Allen. Just don’t mention Allen to Lee – that’s for an article all its own.
Lee makes no apologies for considerable liberties with the truth, or for refusing to cater to demands to change the film, choosing instead to enlist the support of a select group of prominent African-American entertainers to see the films financial difficulties to fruition. Where critics and others took issue with the films length and budget, inflammable subject matter and creativity, Lee stuck to the film he set out to make and it is perhaps better for it. However all biopics face the same struggle between fictionalizing the facts and factionalizing the truth in order to engage, to elicit response and ultimately to entertain. Where Lee straddles the gray area of a workable, successful median he cannot appease one for the many or shun the man for the few. I would suggest setting critical aside for escapism’s sake, return to serious and check your facts and the history books to know what really happened. If you cannot divorce yourself of the two, or come to some understand of them, you will most likely struggle with this film. If Malcolm X is anything it is grand, if it is wrong it still delights; at the end you’ll have known you’ve gone somewhere and met someone, history and fantasy, a mix of many as is cinema. Spike Lee is a complicated and sophisticated filmmaker. I explored the man, the myth and the legend here.
Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X finds it rightful place, finally, emboldened in Blu-ray. Beautifully rendered and stylishly packaged, Warner Bros. aptly delivers their history making 1992 movie release as a “digi-book”, an actual hardback book jacket featuring the prominent image of Denzel Washington as the seminal civil rights leader and the enigmatic symbol “X”. Inside you’ll find the BD disc and DVD disc opposite a forty-page, high-gloss booklet that contains stills from the movie, inspirational quotes, facts and details along with a narrative about the production. For all that X is and isn’t, it is by definition an epic at a staggering 202 minutes, a fact that feels long at times as most 3 and 4 hour movies do, but no less necessary. We learn from the behind the scenes special features that Lee had to fight to uphold his cut, resisting the studio’s pressure to release a more modest running time to ensure a better return at the box office. Not all choices are creative ones, nor are they best left in the director’s hands who are often blinded by their own good intentions. The film is based on an early screenplay by novelist James Baldwin and Arnold Perl, though both men would die before this movie and several others would come on board to attempt drafts. Once Spike Lee took over, he returned to the earliest materials and rewrote the script. His familiar cinematic embellishments and camera techniques are present, his playful homage to cult and culture, the use of the camera as both narrator and spectator invites you in as much as punishes your intimacy. If you’re interested in more about Lee you can read my review of his film 25th Hour here.
It’s impossible to deny the palpable pragmatist in Lee, his deep desire to connect with you and for you gives his characters warmth and grandness. Shysters and hipsters, lawyers and nobles, dance halls and jail cells are waylaid and wonderful, the Lee patische of times lived and lives gone on to memory. Lee’s exhaustive dedication to bringing this film to life is second only to his prowess for storytelling, as singular a voice as any Scorsese and Eastwood, Oliver Stone and Ron Howard production. Lee is confident and calculative, controversial and successful. I’m reminded of Michael Moore and Mel Gibson. I would be curious to take a look at D.W. Griffith after screening Malcolm X – here’s my review of D.W.
It’s not enough to simply point out the wealth of materials gathered for this unique BD release, containing in the form of commentary by the principle architects of the movie, deleted scenes and introductions by Spike Lee himself, and the featurette “By Any Means Necessary: The Making of Malcolm X”. A Bonus DVD includes the Oscar Nominated 1972 Feature-length Documentary Malcolm X. Sitting down to watch Malcolm X is no short order, an investment that goes beyond the cinema and hopefully you do too.
Warner Home Video, a division of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Inc., invited me to join their exclusive Blu-ray Elite Movie Review Program and they sent me a complimentary copy of this movie for the purpose of review with special attention on the “Blu-ray Experience”. I received this video for free, but that does not sway this review or the reviews of other films that will follow.