Movies We Like
Spike Lee’s films have always been hit or miss for me. I grew up watching them, as they were fictitious and familiar depictions of African-Americans, but for the longest time I fell just short of pleased with his work. Forgive me for going on a tangent, but I feel the need to cite the differences and subject matter of some other Spike Lee Joints before raving about this one.
The first Lee film I saw was Crooklyn, and it is perhaps the only other that I am fond of. In short, it is an energetic, sometimes melancholic film about a family in Brooklyn—more or less through the eyes of the couple’s only daughter in their large brood. Overall, the movie is harmless, though it deals softly with substance abuse and death, but it’s a little too gentle; it held up when I was a child, but lost flavor for me in adulthood. This criticism does not translate to it being a bad film, but rather anticlimactic. Another that comes to mind is Jungle Fever—a ballsy film about two co-workers (black male/white female) who become lovers despite their committed relationships. The movie unfolds with over-the-top characters and events, ultimately making it very black and white, both literally and figuratively. I remember being unmoved by the assumed dangers and taboo thrills of biracial lust. It disappointed me then, and it does now. Do The Right Thing, while it is Lee’s most popular and acclaimed work, still reminds me of the misdirected angst that would follow its release in the form of riots. Obviously the film is not to blame, but in times of such hostility, you'd think a message geared toward working together would be better suited and more universal. Its deadpan racist rants (common among his Italian and Black characters) hit you over the head so hard that it almost begs you to choose sides, if not fails to deliver a clear message.
I lost interest in trying to discover more of Spike Lee's work until I saw Malcolm X. While also very heavy and stylized, the film restored my faith in Lee as a more universal director, producer, and writer. I felt grateful, not only for an amazing cinematic experience, but also for an honest story that exposes the iconic person who I felt attached to, and yet removed from. It delivers Denzel Washington’s best performance, as well as an amazing cast of actors, dancers, and extras.
A bit of controversy was sparked by the film, or more specifically from its earlier segment, where the aforementioned honesty comes into effect. This part of the films flows through Malcolm’s troubled years as a hustler, pimp, and cocaine abuser. Dressed in zoot suits and sporting a conk (chemical relaxer for hair), Malcolm (Denzel Washington) drifts further into abandon and self-hate than one might imagine with his best friend Shorty (Spike Lee). The two attempt to rid themselves of an identity which left a considerable amount of damage in their lives. What I am referring to is the identity of slaves and those who are unjustly segregated. By dating white women, changing their hair, and flaunting their high spirits in fancy automobiles and clothes, the two feel as though they can make themselves equal simply by looking like everyone else and playing it cool.
But Malcolm is far from happy. Lee incorporated impressive flashbacks of Malcolm’s childhood and family, isolating his discontent in order for us to see past his faÃ§ade of street glory. Another crafty technique is the use of reoccurring sound effects, such as the echo of a gunshot being heard over people pointing an index finger at Malcolm in the shape of a gun, along with other powerful moments. It symbolically makes him a marked man, both in terms of his reckless days and his enlightened ones.
The going finally gets rough for him when a life of petty crime catches up. Shortly after pulling off a burglary with Shorty and their girlfriends, the two are caught and given a ten year sentence. In prison, while at the end of his rope and withdrawing from his addiction, he meets Baines (Albert Hall) who begins to educate Malcolm on self-worth and the importance of knowing who you are and where you come from. All of this eventually leads Malcolm to the Nation of Islam and to adopt the last name "X" in replacement for his birth name, Little, no doubt the last name of his ancestors' former master. With his new identity he comes to be welcomed and comforted by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.)—a man claimed to be chosen by Allah to lead his people into righteousness. Thus Malcolm and the Nation of Islam begin spreading their word, both publicly and within their own community. Through his work he meets and begins to court Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett). The two inspire each other, are wed, and start a family. As their romance blooms, so does Malcolm’s responsibilities as the front person for their movement. Here we see some of Malcolm’s best and unknown speeches be reenacted by Washington—scenes which are chilling because Washington does them so well that you forget who you’re watching at times. Seriously.
As Malcolm becomes more powerful and more visible in the public eye, he gains a large amount of enemies, many of whom are in his own organization and fear being attacked due to some of his comments. Aside from his public presence, private matters also take a turn for the worst when Betty catches wind of paternity suits being filled against Elijah Muhammad from young women who claim that they were so faithful to their leader that they allowed him to fornicate with them. Once Malcolm confronts his leader and discovers that the allegations are true, he is devastated by the fierce loyalty he had to him and the betrayal he received in return. He seeks to find himself again and takes a visit to the Holy Land (Mecca) where he discovers true Muslim people of all colors, praying together and sharing what bounty they have with everyone. It makes him think differently about his "education" from his group and their entire outlook on whites and vital separation from them. Death threats and harassment start to hang in the air with each phone call, many coming from the Nation of Islam. Lee’s juxtaposition of their efforts and that of the KKK attacking and eventually killing X’s father is masterful.
You obviously know how it ends, but believe me, this is a vision of his assassination based off interviews and astounding research that is jarring, if not somewhat uncomfortable, to have unfold onscreen. Not that a movie could recreate anything perfectly, but like Coppola with Apocalypse Now and Scorsese with his various films, these directors feel as though they've captured something grand and personal to them. Aside from the performances, the film has a soundtrack that is better than Lee’s others because it's not so consistent. The costumes, choreography, and everything in-between are something to marvel at. The cameos were unexpected, but well placed. A lot of work went into this film, and if you’d like to know just how much, read By Any Means Necessary or, more importantly, the film's grandest source, The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Malcolm X was nominated for two Oscars for Best Actor (Denzel Washington) and Best Costume Design.