Malcolm X

Late in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, the man of the title (Denzel Washington) sits in a hotel room and listens to the phone ringing. He doesn’t answer it; he picks up the receiver and puts it back in its cradle, knowing that each call is another whispered death threat. Lee intercuts this with shots of Malcolm’s wife Betty (Angela Bassett) at home: Frantic and terrified, she too has been getting crank calls. Throughout, the jaunty oldie “Shotgun” plays, a chilling omen of what’s in store for Malcolm.

With Malcolm X, Spike Lee, after a couple of bummers (Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever), has rediscovered the joy of combining crackling filmmaking with solid drama. For Malcolm’s life was nothing if not great drama — a narrative of moral empowerment. What other public figure of recent history pulled himself hand over hand out of the depths of hell to become an internationally recognized leader, and then continued to redefine himself right up until his murder? Such material demands a rock-steady director, an artist prepared to illuminate all the faces of Malcolm. The Spike who made the scattershot Jungle Fever couldn’t have managed Malcolm X. This is the work of the Spike who made Do the Right Thing. Lee, I’m relieved to report, is a master again.

Reworking an old script by James Baldwin and Arnold Perl, based on Malcolm’s autobiography as told to the late Alex Haley, Lee shapes Malcolm’s life as a portrait in perpetual change. Malcolm was a hard man for anyone to pin down; here, you see that he couldn’t quite pin himself down, either. He spent his days working towards something, some way to get people of color out from under the boots of whites, and the nature of his mission kept shifting from an encompassing hatred of whites to a philosophy closer (but not identical) to that of Martin Luther King. (If people today peg Malcolm solely as a white-basher, that may be because his “white devil” rhetoric was more widely publicized than his more temperate later views, after he realized that hypocrisy existed even among Muslims.) Dramatizing the stages in Malcolm’s development (zoot-suit stud, hustler, prisoner, Muslim, husband and father, leader), Lee puts across the excitement of intellectual growth, the thrill of empowerment through words, the magic of oratorical genius.

At the very least, Malcolm was a bit of sand in the machine of the white conscience. Loud and uncompromising, he was a symbol to everyone — a great symbol for his black brothers and sisters, a worrying symbol for status-quo whites. The challenge is to find the human being inside the symbol, and Denzel Washington, like his director, has his game face on. In a stunning scene, Malcolm strides into a police station, demanding to see a Nation of Islam member who has been arrested and brutally beaten. Outside, awaiting further instructions, stand a massive and neat formation of Malcolm’s followers. Out in the street, after the wounded prisoner has been taken away via ambulance, Malcolm raises his gloved finger, and hundreds of people quietly disperse. We might not buy this moment if not for Washington’s subtle yet steel-hard authority.

Washington plays the younger Malcolm as something of a fool, a black man so carefully removed from his roots that he subjects himself to a painful conk to make his hair straight and “white.” (Lee, in another self-deprecating performance, plays “Shorty,” Malcolm’s sidekick in the early days, who gives Malcolm his first conk; Lee himself appears with a conk, perhaps out of solidarity with his star.) Gradually, as Malcolm educates himself and becomes serious (yet still charismatic), Washington’s performance takes on a Shakespearean elegance and heroism. And also Shakespearean tragedy: When Malcolm realizes the full extent of the forces against him — that his violent death is no longer just a possibility but a given — Washington’s face goes dead and numb. The dazzling heat and charm are gone, leaving only exhaustion and resignation — the human being near the end of his journey.

Malcolm had a way of fascinating some of the same people he repelled; he did it by speaking plainly and ferociously, using impeccable logic, slashing white hypocrisy with razor-precise strokes, lashing out at the “Uncle Toms” and “house n—–s” he felt were a hindrance to black advancement. Wisely, Lee reproduces some of Malcolm’s great speeches verbatim and lets Washington use every ounce of persuasion in his repertoire to sock Malcolm’s points home. You’re not just seeing an actor reading Malcolm’s words; you’re seeing Malcolm’s spirit come through Washington, as a force that cannot be denied.

The point of Lee’s engrossing, scathing epic, which begins with the nightmare blur of the Rodney King video, is that as long as racism lives, the spirit of Malcolm will — must — live. That’s the reason for the epilogue, with the classroom kids saying “I am Malcolm X.” They’re not saying “I, too, will hate white people”; they’re saying “I, too, will work hard and make the best of myself despite the resistance of some white people.” Malcolm himself must have wished there were no need for Malcolm X. But there was a need for him, then and now, as there is also a need for Malcolm X.

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