When I was in middle school, our teacher for one of my classes (It’s been so long that I can’t remember which one) gave us an assignment to read a biography of our choice for the class. Being the over-achiever that I used to be, I chose a book that was probably a little too advanced for me at the time in The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley. Picking that particular book for that particular assignment turned out to be one of the most fateful decisions of my life. It was love at first sight, and I’ve read and re-read that book more times than I can count, and I always get something new and meaningful from it each time. Malcolm X is one of the most important and one of my favorite political figures in the history of this country. So, it should come as no surprise that when Spike Lee, the master of the urban film, decided to make a biopic about Minister Malcolm starring none other than Denzel Washingto (perhaps the finest black actor of his or any generation) as Malcolm X, the final product was a spectacular film.
The film chronicles the life of Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little. From his father’s murder at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan to being a street hustler in New York City to going to prison for burglary to his conversion to Islam while in prison to his time as the most fiery and effective minister in Elijah Muhammed’s Nation of Islam to his betrayal by the Nation for being to popular to his conversion to true Islam whilst on the Hadj, the traditional Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, and finally to his tragic assassination just before his 40th birthday. I would normally complain about the film’s 3 and 1/2 hour length but if ever a man lived an evolving and constantly transforming life, it was Brother Malcolm, and you need to understand the totality of his life to fully appreciate who he was, what he was about, and the greatness of the man that was taken from us too soon.
As spectacular as Spike Lee’s direction is (although perhaps there could have been some editing here and there to scenes that maybe ran a bit too long), this film could only ultimately succeed if the man playing Malcolm X gave a five star performance. Well, Denzel gave the performance of his career. I’ve never seen Scent of a Woman, so I can’t necessarily disparage the Academy’s decision to hand the Oscar to Al Pacino, but his performance would have to have been just one of the best performances ever to beat Denzel in this movie. He becomes Malcolm X. He is fiery, passionate, full of seething anger, and yet charming and likeable at the same time. He delivers those speeches denouncing the white man so well, it almost made me to start to hate myself even though (growing up in a family with black foster brothers and sisters that I am as close to as my biological family) I don’t think I have a racist bone in my body. He sells that fire and passion. It makes you wonder why anybody ever listened to the “turn your other cheek” and “forgive and forget” of other black civil right leaders. This performance is much better than the two performances he actually won Oscar’s for, namely Glory and Training Day.
The film is fully of many (considering its epic length) little moments that let you know exactly what kind of man Malcolm was. Some of my favorites are Malcolm’s trip to Mecca and seeing him interacting and loving and worshiping among people of all colors and races, pretty much any time he gives a speech (I could just listen to Malcolm X’s speeches all day), and when he calls and proposes to his wife, Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett), over the phone. However, my favorite moment in the whole film is when a member of the Nation has been brutally beaten by the police for no cause. Malcolm marches right into police head quarters and stares down the racist cops and gets to see his man despite their trying to fight it. When the man has to be taken to the hospital, Malcolm organized a march of his people and others following him to the hospital. A race riot is about to break out (while the Muslims stand calm and collected waiting for Malcolm’s orders) when you find that the beaten man will live. Malcolm gives the order to disperse simply by waving his finger and the crowd breaks up. He was so charismatic, so liked, so powerful that he just had to point and hundreds of people did what he said. It’s amazing.
This is one of the movies, like Schindler’s List, that should be requierd viewing in all high schools. It’s thought-provoking and brings the kinds of message that a mainstream public education will never bring. Yeah, the movie is probably way too long. 3 and a half hours is a really long time to sit still. But, it’s worth it. There are few films that are this powerful, and there are few characters in our nation’s history with the kind of bravery, intelligence, and wit that Malcolm X brings to the table. Reading the book changed my life. Maybe, watching the film could change yours.
Final Score: A