MALCOLM X (1992)

The real Malcolm X
  • Release Date: 18/11/1992
  • Cast: Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al. Freeman Jr., Delroy Lindo, Spike Lee
  • Director: Spike Lee

Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.

— Malcolm X

The first time we see Malcolm X (Denzel Washington), he is only trying to blend in with the white folks and be as uber-cool as was possible. To this end, he takes the help of Shorty (Spike Lee, also the director of the film). He teaches him how to dye his hair, even though it is more painful than undergoing brain surgery. He also shows him how to dress up in the most garish fashion that to them means making a statement. He also guides him on how to put the best step forward. But all his efforts to blend in with the hip crowd cannot switch off the flurry of memories that comes to him every time he either watches some injustice being done to the blacks or for that matter is at one with himself.

Malcolm’s father was a strong man and he tried to raise his children well. Unfortunately, he was brutally murdered and his death was shrugged off as a suicide/accident. Incapacitated by the grief of his sudden demise and a complete lack of justice for his murder, Malcolm’s mother is broken inside out and finds herself fighting tooth and nails to save her children from being snatched away from her. They eventually are. Malcolm ends up in a foster home that sets him on the path to where he was when we met him for the first time in the film. He soon meets a local gangster, Archie (Delroy Lindo) who introduces him to the world of hustling and helps him earn a quick buck. After an altercation with Archie over some numbers, Malcolm decides to pick his own jobs and only involves his friend Shorty and their white girlfriends. He pulls off a heist but is caught and sent to prison for 8 years. It is here that he meets Baines (Albert Hall) who introduces him to Elijah Muhammad and the concept of “The Nation of Islam”.

Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in a still from Malcolm X

By the time Malcolm completes his sentence and walks out of prison, he has already read through the entire English dictionary and worked out a detailed counter explanation and plan to rebut every verbal onslaught from the white folks for every word that they could possibly use to undermine the blacks. He believes that the white man is the devil and the blacks are the true creations of God and are meant to lead the way. He is confident that God is Black. Inspired by the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and armed with his new found knowledge emanating out of his extensive study in prison, Malcolm sets about to establish the Nation of Islam and bring as many black oppressed individuals he can under its folds. He feels that Christianity is not going to save the Black folks as it is designed to keep them in check and justify every subjugation that the white man has committed on them over 400 years. Malcolm’s voice is heard and people soon start relating to his thought process leading to some interesting results.

I love Spike Lee’s no holds barred approach to depicting racial discrimination and how fearlessly he puts it all out. In his able hands the book, Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley proves to be a potent and affecting weapon. The film can be divided primarily into two portions. The portion before Malcolm goes to jail shows us how vain and misdirected his life was. He is shown doing things that he is evidently not happy about but still cannot stop himself from doing anyways. He despises the whites and his inner commotion often makes its way out to the screen through his various mannerisms. One of the best examples of this can be found in the scene where Malcolm is shown working as a seller/waiter on a train where he faces a white customer who treats him inappropriately. In another scene we see him ask his white girlfriend to kiss his feet and when she does he says “I wish your parents could see you like this”. He seems to be under the weight of a traumatized childhood and the lack of a mother who was snatched away from him for no fault of hers or his.

Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett in a still from Malcolm X

Once out of jail, Malcolm takes a u-turn from all his previous ways and becomes a completely different person. His sense of dressing, his way of walking and mannerisms, and his oratory ways undergo a sea change. It is as if he is someone who was reborn and forged from all that he learned and experienced when he was in jail and in Baines’ company. It has to be recognized that Denzel Washington toggles between the two versions of the character effortlessly. The way he maintains believability and justifies the changes in the character through his behaviors and sense of discovery only makes his performance that much more potent and makes a far deeper impact on the viewers. I just loved the poise and gusto that he brings to the character in the latter half. His energy and control are infectious and quickly rubs onto the audiences.

Denzel Washington does an even better job towards the end of the film. There comes a time when Malcolm is at crossroads with other ministers and the leader of “The Nation of Islam”. His infallible faith in Elijah Mohammad is violently shaken when he finds out about his promiscuity that, as per Islam, was a sin. Malcolm is in denial for a long time but then is forced to accept it for what it is. The disgust and feeling of sadness on his face in these scenes elevate it to a whole new level. Meanwhile, His fiery speeches and unabashed manners make him a favorite of the press. This doesn’t go down well with the other ministers including Baines. Elijah is repeatedly warned about Malcolm’s soaring popularity and desire to be the leader of the Nation of Islam. There comes a time when Elijah banishes him from public appearances while also ordering his assassination under the rug. As Malcolm learns of his sinister plans, he is evidently disillusioned. Washington does a terrific job in these sequences. He bears a striking resemblance to Malcolm X and it only helps his essay soar higher.

Denzel Washington and Delroy Lindo in a still from Malcolm X

Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al. Freeman Jr., and Delroy Lindo turn in credible supporting performances. I was highly impressed by how Al. Freeman Jr. approached the character of Elijah Muhammad. The way he essays the man, I would not mind falling for his words. Angela Bassett has an effective arch through the narrative that in many ways opens up the reverend figures for questioning. Delroy Lindo is brilliant in a small role that leaves a lasting impact.

I just loved Spike Lee’s hyperactive way of shooting and editing the film. Malcolm X is 3 hours and 22 minutes long and yet is always on the move. The film’s visuals are mixed up organically with black and white footage of the film and real press footages of various atrocities committed on the blacks and it is all done so effectively that it all propounds to leave a seamless and profound impact. The music and the visual style are in strong keeping with the period and you don’t need to be an expert to understand that. I generally ignore the costumes in a film but here one cannot ignore the elevated importance that the costumes bring to the characters and the settings. It just speaks volumes about the state of mind of the men and women. The difference in the way Malcolm dresses in the beginning to his demeanor in the end of the film gives us a clear idea about the arch his character has gone through these years. It shows us clearly how functional and poised he has become not to mention articulate.

Malcolm X is the kind of film that no one will get completely in the first viewing. It is the kind of film that people can watch once or twice a year and still be amazed by how well it has aged over the years. Keeping aside the initial portions, the narrative is gripping, intriguing, and inspiring. The film has one of the best performances from Denzel Washington ever and it paints an objective picture of Malcolm and shows us how far he was able to reach with his rhetoric. Malcolm X was in the center of the problem that was plaguing American society and he thought that the disintegration of the two kinds was the only way out. He thought Islam was the only way out. He might not have been correct and the same problems might still be plaguing American society but his impact on a generation of people and the way they think and treat themselves cannot be ignored. For bringing all that to life and treating it with respect and realism, Spike Lee’s film deserves its place with the best biographical films ever made.

Rating: 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)           

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