Sunday, March 30, 2008
Source Material: The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
Director: Spike Lee
Screenplay by: Arnold Perl and Spike Lee
Denzel Washington: Malcolm X
Angela Bassett: Dr. Betty Shabazz
Albert Hall: Baines
Al Freeman Jr.: Elijah Muhammad
Delroy Lindo: West Indian Archie
Spike Lee: Shorty
Theresa Randle: Laura
Kate Vernon: Sophia
Lonette McKee: Louise Little
Tommy Hollis: Earl Little
When I first read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I was struck by the incredible progression of the author's life. From criminal to racist minister to a strong voice for interracial unity, Malcolm X managed to live a life of constant questioning, analyzing himself and his world and seeking improvement in both areas. What emerges from his book is a man who is somewhat flawed, a little narcissistic, and brilliant. Most of all, the Malcolm X of the Autobiography is dynamic.
To Spike Lee's credit, Malcolm X manages to catch all three of its subject's stages. Unlike the real Malcolm X, however, Lee's cinematic creation seems to view all stages of X's development equally. In the beginning, when Denzel Washington's Malcolm Little gets his first lye-based hair treatment, Lee portrays street life as an exciting, candy-colored delight. The zoot suits are always bright, the shoes are always shined, and the dance halls are always choreographed. It is a glittery, neon-colored world of cute, Damon Runyon gangsters, at least until Malcolm ticks off West Indian Archie and has to leave Harlem.
While Malcolm's years in prison are somewhat grim, Lee manages to imbue his tenure as a minister in the Nation of Islam with a radical, intellectual chic. Malcolm the minister is a charming, brillian vision in crisp white shirts and black and a black wool overcoat. Nary a seam out of place or a shirt rumpled, the Islamic Malcolm exudes hip, self-confident cool. The same goes for all Malcolm's surroundings: the other Black Muslems are studies in smooth dressing, the Moslem women are all beautiful and well-kept, and even the police are sharply dressed. In fact, in the ultimate scene, where Malcolm leads a cadre of Muslims to put up a show of force outside of a hospital, the police cars are freshly polished, and the buildings are clean. Wherever Lee's Malcolm X goes, he is surrounded with a pure bubble of perfection.
As Malcolm separates himself from the Nation of Islam, he gets a little beard, which demonstrates his physical separation from the austere Muslims that he used to lead, but he still maintains the slickly-tailored look that he had long displayed. Of course, Lee shows the militant Malcolm, sporting an M-1 carbine and a couple of handguns, but these only serve to demonstrate, Straw Dogs-style, that Malcolm is a man for all seasons. By the time he is shot in the Audubon ballroom (following a drawn-out, trip up Calvary final march), he has made the progression into sainthood. The cheesy "I am Malcolm X" coda that Lee tacks on to the ending transforms the film from the sublime to the ridiculous. If Lee felt obliged to tie the film together in such an embarrassingly self-indulgent way, I can't help wishing that he'd been brave enough to offer something truly revolutionary, like a white kid yelling "I am Malcolm X."
While I have a great deal of admiration for Malcolm X, and think that Denzel Washington should have gotten an Oscar for his performance, the movie is somewhat disingenuous. Lee is so desperate to imbue every frame with a slick veneer of cool that he cannot bring himself to question, much less condemn, any of his subject's incarnations. This is particularly sad, given the fact that Malcolm X himself was quick to recognize his own errors and the wrong turns that he had taken over much of his life. By refusing to acknowledge Malcolm X's mistakes, Lee dishonors the incredible personal growth of his hero.
Malcolm X relies on many of its subject's speeches, which are quite powerful. Here are a few of the better quotes:
Malcolm: Being born here does not make you an American. You and I are not American. You're one of the millions of black people who are victims of America. You and I, we've never seen democracy. There's no democracy in the fields of Georgia. No democracy down there. We didn't see any democracy in Harlem, Brooklyn, Detroit, Chicago. Ain't no democracy there. We've never seen democracy; all we've seen is hypocrisy. We don't see any American dream. We've experienced only the American nightmare.
Malcolm: Because of the spiritual rebirth which l was blessed to undergo as a result of my pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, l no longer subscribe to sweeping indictments of one race. I intend to be very careful not to sentence anyone who has not been proven guilty. I am not a racist, and I do not subscribe to any of the tenets of racism. In all honesty and sincerity, it can be stated that I wish nothing but freedom, justice and equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people. My first concern is with the group to which I belong for we, more than others, are deprived of our inalienable rights. But the true practice of Islam can remove the cancer of racism from the hearts and the souls of all Americans. If I can die having brought any light having exposed any truth that will help destroy this disease, then all the credit is due to Allah, the Lord of all the worlds, and only the mistakes have been mine.
Ossie Davis (from his eulogy for Malcolm X): Malcolm had stopped being a Negro years ago. It had become too small, too puny, too weak a word for him. Malcolm was bigger than that. Malcolm had become an Afro-American, and he wanted—so desperately—that we, that all his people, would become Afro-Americans, too.
There are those who will consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times.
Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain—and we will smile. Many will say turn away—away from this man; for he is not a man but a demon, a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the black man—and we will smile. They will say that he is of hate—a fanatic, a racist—who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say to 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? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did, you would know him. And if you knew him, you would know why we must honor him: Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood!
Physical resemblance: 8
Historical Accuracy: 7
Production Values: 9