‘Malcolm X’ – ’92 Cinema Revue

Malcolm X – #3 in the U.S. (Nov. 20-23)

All-Time Worldwide: $48,169,910

Malcolm X is an epic of triumph and a portrait of a man battling for his faith and beliefs.

In a TCM introduction for Malcolm X, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson discussed how he and Spike Lee met while attending Morehouse College. Dickerson and Lee found common ground in their artistry, what they enjoyed, and one joint dream project: making The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley. With Dickerson finishing up on Juice, Lee called on Dickerson to return and team up one more time to realize their college dreams. Denzel Washington signed on to portray the iconic figure of Malcolm X, studying his speeches and mannerisms to encapsulate the role. Lee, Dickerson, and Washington teamed to make sure Malcolm X would be a modern epic of his life and his eventual death at the hands of people he seemingly trusted. What follows is the Best Picture of 1992 that never even got nominated for the category.

Malcolm X (Denzel Washington) begins as “Detroit Red” Malcolm Little is a slick young cat in the streets with his pal Shorty (Spike Lee) and getting involved in drinking, drugs, and women. Upon meeting West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo) and turning to a life of crime, Red is sent to prison. While in prison, Little meets Baines (Albert Hall), who informs him about the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhhamad. Malcolm X was born and began to spread the word as a member of the Nation of Islam promoting black empowerment. However, as X starts to gain prominence, his faith and the Nation feel he has gone too far, leaving his family, including Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett), to be in the crosshairs of the Nation and the CIA.

Malcolm X is an epic of triumph and a portrait of a man battling for his faith and beliefs. Lee and Dickerson did deliver on accomplishing their dream to make a definite biography without falling into most of the tropes associated with it. While it does follow his life up till his eventual death, it primarily focuses on his path to becoming the figure we know him as today. This is helped by Washington having to play Malcolm in different eras and capture his growth.

Washington has to walk a balancing act throughout, and man, does he succeed? Washington goes from a charming street man with charisma and grace into Malcolm, retaining the appeal but harnessing a hypnotic and engaging performance when capturing Malcolm’s speeches and emotions. It is not a simple impression or caricature of the man himself, but akin to the man himself enough to give him. Washington’s studying of Malcolm X’s work shows throughout the film to his benefit. This is the finest performance he has delivered. Washington is one of my all-time favorite actors to grace the screen in this film, proving how much of a star he is.

Malcolm X (Denzel Washington) speaks to Elijah Muhammad about his new position as a pastor for the Nation of Islam. Source: Warner Bros. Discovery

Lee’s direction is meticulous in showing a good vision that is his own, but also adding to the grandeur of Malcolm’s life. From the dynamic Roseland dance sequences to shooting on location in Mecca, Lee went the extra mile. The decision to start out with Malcolm’s speech about the evils of the white man is a conscious choice to show that what Malcolm was talking about still resonated in 1992. The L.A. Riots are still fresh in memory, and it engages the audience out of the gate, no matter their takeaway from the Rodney King trial and the aftermath. It sets the tone right away. Beyond that, the visual storytelling is impeccable, with Dickerson making sure his final rodeo with Lee is grand. The vibrant colors, shadows, and sweeping cinematography of on-location shots ensure this is an epic film. The Dolly shot with Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” is cinematic bliss and remembered for great reason. One part of the film that has stuck with me is Malcolm in solitary with only a bright light. It is claustrophobic, with the light as the only point of life beyond the walls. Lee and Dickerson capture Malcolm’s isolation and dark frame of mind during that time. It’s haunting and something out of a horror film.

On the writing forefront, Lee gets us involved in Malcolm’s life’s good, bad and ugly by not holding back and paying close attention to critical moments. The portrayal of the Nation of Islam does not hold back on showing Malcolm finding his place and being happy to be apart until the eventual backlash and disillusionment. Lee and co-writer Arnold Perl capture the disillusionment well, with Malcolm feeling his faith breaking at the seam, becoming even more out of favor renouncing the Nation, and heading on his pilgrimage to Mecca. He becomes more in tune with his own beliefs, as well as still retaining some thoughts prior. His assassination is made all the more heartbreaking, with tension rising and building.

Brother Baines (Albert Hall) brings Malcolm X (Denzel Washington) into the Nation of Islam during his time in prison. Source: Warner Bros. Discovery

Death is everywhere in this movie, constantly lingering in the background and all around. The song “Shotgun” rears its head at a dance a day before his death. The KKK attacked and killed his father. There are numerous times Malcolm could have died either at the hands of white naysayers, the CIA, or his own brotherhood. The anxiety of the situation is made a kill in the constant phone-tapping of their home with Betty, played wonderfully by Angela Bassett, becoming panicked over the fact that they can no longer feel safe. She evokes the anxiety and fear faced by the family at that point. The culmination of their house being set ablaze only exemplifies death knocking on Malcolm’s door soon.

His death scene is harsh and brutal, an intense watch that is hard to sit and see. I was in tears over the scene, seeing this man that we have spent what feels like a lifetime within only a three-hour-plus runtime die before us. The ending with Ozzie Davis’ eulogy and the montage of the real man himself only make the tears flow stronger. The three-hour and twenty minutes runtime may also seem daunting for some, but it is not. Lee made sure this joint did not waste a frame by paying attention to what matters most and what is the most intriguing. Malcolm X was designed to be an epic and succeeded in becoming a modern epic, which feels lost to time in filmmaking.

Malcolm X (Denzel Washington) heads out on a walk on the day of his assassination with Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” playing in the background. Source: Warner Bros. Discovery

Malcolm X is a masterwork of Lee, Dickerson, and Washington. Their careers reached a zenith within this film. Even with career lulls, their works remain in the conversation from the direction, cinematography, and Washington. Lee’s Do the Right Thing is his masterpiece, but Malcolm X is a narrow second; the same could be said for Dickerson. Washington would become a more prominent household name and still manages to get audiences excited to see him. Malcolm X not getting a Best Picture nomination by the Academy in 1992 feels like a massive insult. With the predominantly white selection of nominees, this film deserved as much praise as the nomination. It’s the last big non-fiction epic and worthy of the main prize. Then again, we still need to get to the other two nominees soon enough. But they still have to compete with the power of Malcolm X.

Revue Rating: 5 out of 5

Next time, come to a faraway place where camels and caravans roam, where it’s flat and immense, and the heat is intense, but hey, it’s home! It’s Aladdin and the beginning of a shift in animation history, for better or worse.

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