Spike Lee’s Malcolm X is twenty years old, but the controversy surrounding it still feels fresh. At the time, Lee was considered a dangerous filmmaker, and no one was sure how the film would be received and if it would start riots. And Lee made it of the moment; he opened with the Rodney King beating, which now may have no context to younger viewers. But now, it’s simply a great movie that is saddled with a bio-pic structure. Denzel Washington gives a career best performance as the criminal transformed into a great leader and thinker. Our review of Malcolm X on Blu-ray follows after the jump.
The film starts as Malcolm Little (Washington) enters into a life of crime. He’s dressed to the hilt, working on a train, and looking for better action. His partner in crime is Shorty (Lee), and eventually he starts dating a white woman (Kate Vernon) and running with West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo), a bookmaker that Malcolm eventually alienates. Everything crashes down when his gang is arrested, and he ends up in prison.
There Malcolm meets Baines (Albert Hall), who begins to teach him about the Muslim religion, and how black people have been oppressed by the white man. Malcolm slowly takes the bait, and begins to learn. As a child he was told – because he was black – that service work was the only thing for him, but he’s inspired and comes out of prison right into the arms of the Nation of Islam. There he becomes a preacher, spreading the word of Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.) and quickly ascends to being a leading figure in black culture. He also meets Dr. Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett), and the two wed after what feels like a business decision (though courtly).
As Malcolm becomes a political figure, he sees a growing resentment in the Nation of Islam. Even though he acts as a mouthpiece for Elijah, there is the smell of jealousy around his success, and some are worried that he’s become the face of the movement. Then Malcolm comes to discover secrets about Elijah that shake him to his core. After saying something that garners too much attention (“Chickens have come home to roost”), he leaves the Nation, and is constantly worried about his own assassination.
Running nearly three and a half hours, Lee covers all the major periods of Malcolm’s life. It runs through decades, but unlike most bio-pics, it’s never boring, nor does one section of the film dominate the movie. There’s no boring here. And though Lee’s got a great supporting cast, Denzel Washington is the show, and it’s one of those truly great performances. Every step of the way he’s up to the challenge, and he makes the transformation from thug to preacher believable and engaging. Not only that, but he nails Malcolm’s cadence and he feels inhabited.
Lee is with Washington every step of the way. At the time, the opening sequence with its zoot suits seemed indulgent, but it’s fun and it never outweighs the film – it makes it easier to sink into the latter more serious sections. Though it’s not as masterful, as complete a statement or as invigorating as his Do the Right Thing, it’s still a great work. Only in the last moments does Lee falter a little, inviting Nelson Mandela to be a part of the film, but in a compromised fashion. Perhaps just the nature of bio-pic making knocks this down just a little, but it’s a remarkable achievement regardless.
Warner Brother’s Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (1.85:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 Master audio. The transfer is a knock out. The film looks filmic, and Ernest Dickerson’s photography is gorgeous here. Extras on the Blu-ray include a commentary by Lee, Dickerson, editor Barry Alexander Brown and costume designer Ruth Carter. It’s a good track – though it’s a long movie – and walks through some of Lee’s headaches making the film. But better is the making of documentary “By Any Means Necessary” (30 min.), which deals with how much Lee had to fight to get the film made, and how he convinced Norman Jewison that he was the wrong man for the job. Nine deleted scenes (21 min.) are also included, with introductions by Lee. Nothing essential is missing in these sequences, they’re mostly little details that don’t go missed. The film’s theatrical trailer is also included. The Blu-ray presents the film in a book-style package, and there is a 40 page booklet and a bonus DVD with a documentary on Malcolm X (92 min.). If you doubted that Washington channeled X for his performance, this is essential.