In my prior reviews, I’ve made it no secret how much I prefer biopic movies that cover a short span of a real-life person’s life rather than features that try to shove an entire life into one motion picture. When you try to put too many major life events into one biopic movie, it has a tendency to make things feel rushed and lessens the impact of moments that should have real power to them. But this approach to biopic cinema can work with the proper execution and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X not only has the proper execution, it executes its expansive depiction of the life of Malcolm X so well that this truly feels like one of the all-time great biopics.
Over the course of 200 minutes, Lee tells a tale about Malcolm X (here portrayed by Denzel Washington) spanning two decades, starting in the 1940’s with a young Malcolm who’s doing criminal activity to get by and whose troubled childhood casts a wide shadow over his life. After getting sentenced to a lengthy prison sentence, Malcolm discovers the world of Islam and finds salvation in this religion that leads him to a new calling in life: public speaking on the topic of black rights and the virtues of his religion for religious leader Elijah Muhamad (Al Freeman Jr.). It’s a calling that provides him with plenty of clout as well as controversy from both white protestors and, in time, Muslim Brotherhood higher-up’s he used to consider his allies.
This story is used to tell a story about Malcolm X that feels more in touch with reality regarding 1960's advocacy for civil rights than conventional retellings of that era. There's a widespread tendency by predominately white individuals to paint the 1960's fight for civil rights for black citizens in America as one where Martin Luther King Jr. stood up, made speeches and suddenly everybody just came together to solve problems related to racism. It's a cushy vision of a reality in which King was actually reviled, the majority of white Americans in this era hated him and they especially hated Malcolm X, a figure who clamored for black citizens to defend themselves and explicitly challenged white figures from all walks of life and the role they played in the anguish of racial minorities in America. Whether they were advocating for non-violence protest like King or championing self-defense like Malcolm X, white Americans did not like black citizens reminding them that bigotry existed and that they may have a role, whether by complicity or by active engagement, in perpetrating that bigotry.
Sadly, that's usually ignored in retrospective narratives about this era in American history but it's certainly not eschewed in Spike Lee's Malcolm X movie, which upends that cozy idea of 1960's America by depicting that decade and the other two decades its story spans in a manner as realistic as the way it realizes its central historical figure. Like the best historical biopics, Malcolm X, from the scenes showing his days playing cons to get by to sequences depicting him becoming a speaker of vast influence, is constantly depicted as a recognizably human creation. The expansive running time of the movie allows us to see this man's thought process and perspective on the world evolve over time. He isn't someone who's ideology is just fused together from the get-go, rather, Malcolm X is someone who, like any person, grows over time with some of Malcolm's most particularly profound growth transpiring after he takes a trip to Mecca.
Watching this man evolve over time proves to be one of the fascinating parts of Spike Lee's outstanding screenplay, a piece of writing that also achieves the impressive feat of crafting a distinctly human interpretation of Malcolm X without sacrificing the characters larger significance to American history. Both the opening and closing scenes of this feature are evocative sequences that manage to capture the level of influence this man can have even when he's not on-screen. That opening credits sequence that has Denzel Washington's Malcolm X deliver a stirring speech in voice-over as the American flag burns on-screen serving as a great way to both communicate who this man is without ever even showing him.
Capturing the power and humanity of Malcolm X with equal level of effectiveness as Spike Lee and Arnold Perl's screenplay is the lead performance from Denzel Washington. Though today we have a handful of features, most notably The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Martin Scorsese's forthcoming The Irishman that use digital de-aging technology to depict certain actors at different points in their lives, Denzel Washington's magnificent performance here in Malcolm X shows the value of just relying on performers instead of digital wizardry to communicate the passage of time. Whether he's portraying Malcolm as a young man or a more wisened older public figure, Washington brings a totally convincing performance to the table.
Similarly impressive is just how well this movie uses the naturally magnetic presence of Washington. Whenever it's time for Washington to deliver a rousing speech or stand out in a crowd, his performance so effortlessly grabs your attention that it fits perfectly with depicting why Malcolm X would become such an attention-grabbing speaker. In the more quiet moments of the movie though, Washington still manages to totally captivate you, particularly in a beautifully executed sequence depicting Malcolm the morning before his assassination. Washington doesn't even speak here and he doesn't need to, just his singular facial expression as he makes his way to deliver yet another speech says it all. Denzel Washington's career has been filled with impressive performances, but his utterly mesmerizing work in Malcolm X might just be his best work as a performer.
Everybody working on Malcolm X seems to be taking a cue from the top-notch work Denzel Washington and Spike Lee are putting into this feature and also bringing their own A-game to the proceedings. From Angela Bassett's marvelous supporting performance to the exquisite costumes by Ruth E. Carter (oh my God, the 1940's era costumes are especially glorious) to Ernest Dickerson's cinematography, Malcolm X is the kind of incredibly thoughtful movie that seems to just bring out the absolute best in its creative participants. I may have not enjoyed many other biopic films that cover an extensive amount of a real-life person's life, but if more biopics of that nature were as anywhere near the level of quality achieved by Spike Lee's masterful Malcolm X, I'd probably feel far differently!
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