Spike Lee has made a disappointingly conventional and sluggish film in “Malcolm X.” Attempting to relate the extraordinary journey that was the black leader’s life, Lee has set his sights much higher than he ever has before, and tribute must be paid to the way in which the filmmaker persevered and made the film his way and on his terms within the system. Nevertheless, the picture comes up short in several departments, notably in pacing and in giving a strong sense of why this man became such a legend. The “X” phenomenon that has been building for so long reaches its natural climax with the release of the film, and the large number of people for whom this reps a “must see” guarantees heavy B.O. action for some time. Many critics and viewers might be respectful to the point of overindulgence in deference to the subject matter, but the fact remains that this is one long sit, and feels like it.
Despite Denzel Washington’s forceful, magnetic and multilayered lead performance, this epic biography clicks in only sporadically, confirming the view that Lee has always been a much better director of individual scenes than of cohesive total works.
Where the film falters can best be seen by simply comparing it to its source. From beginning to end, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” is a mesmerizing page-turner, an extraordinary, rare insight into the political and spiritual transformations that occurred within one man during a tumultuous, tragically abbreviated lifespan.
Lee’s account is loaded with speeches articulating Malcolm’s Islamic and black nationalist perspective but, with the exception of the American flag which , a la “Patton,” backs the opening credits, none of it catches fire. Galvanizing sections of the subject’s life story, such as his trip to Mecca and Africa, are simply glossed over here. Truly getting inside a character’s head is never an easy task for a dramatist and, despite using some first-person narration, Lee hasn’t really managed it.
Still, the life itself is so compelling, and the issues it takes up remain so potent and relevant, that the picture can’t help but command a relatively strong degree of interest. Malcolm’s progression from street hustler, burglar and convict to religious and political leader and, now, to near-mythic figure is unique in modern annals, and the historical period retains its own fascination, especially when seen — a rarity in Hollywood films — from a black perspective.
Screenplay by the late Arnold Perl and Lee (James Baldwin’s name, often invoked during production, is nowhere mentioned) tellingly begins during “the war years” with Lee’s hipster character Shorty conking the hair of 16-year-old Malcolm Little, who has recently arrived in Boston. Initial hour chronicles Malcolm’s misadventures in clubs and bars, his affair with a white woman, numbers running, involvement in drugs and the burglary ring that eventually lands him in the pen.
Section is none-too-gracefully broken up by numerous flashbacks that provide glimpses of Malcolm’s childhood, including an attack on his family’s home by the Ku Klux Klan, his father’s violent death, his mother’s institutionalization, his becoming a ward of the state and a patronizing white teacher discouraging him from becoming a lawyer.
Subsequent 25 minutes detail Malcolm’s prison introduction to Islam and the beliefs of Elijah Muhammad, whose “white devil” racial theories and emphasis on black pride, discipline and separatism provide an articulate, coherent, all-embracingoutlet for the anger and latent ideas that Malcolm’s life experiences have given him. The authority of Albert Hall, who plays his teacher, the pivotal nature of this period, and the severity of his treatment in solitary confinement give this section a sobering, sometimes gripping power.
Next hour presents Malcolm as the rising star of the Nation of Islam. Overwhelmed upon actually meeting Elijah Muhammad, the young man, sporting the customary natty suit and bow tie, becomes a spellbinding street preacher in Harlem and, later, a minister at mosques. Countering the integrationist ideals of Martin Luther King and white liberals at the outset of the civil rights movement, Malcolm forecasts a ” racial explosion” and espouses a “complete separation between the black race and the white race.”
What comes across during this long stretch devoted mostly to speeches and ideology — with brief timeouts for Malcolm’s courtship of his wife-to-be, Betty — is the resolve of a passionate believer and thinker to speak his mind, tell the truth and go his own way, regardless. This incendiary, obsessive, defiant side of Malcolm X seems to elicit the strongest response in Lee and Washington, and therefore will probably have the same effect on audiences.
But Malcolm’s gradual break with Elijah Muhammad is handled in rather muddled fashion, and the final, short act of Malcolm’s life — his realization that the world’s races perhaps could be united, and his abortive attempt to merge his religious and political activities on his own — isn’t given the dramatic substance it deserves, despite the time lavished upon it.
Beginning, crucially, with Washington’s, several of the performances are powerful enough to put the material over and provide continuity even when the script and storytelling sweep prove deficient. Washington convinces even as a hayseed teenager in the opening scenes, and grows marvelously as Malcolm’s character deepens and expands. Putting over the speeches with impressive power, he also makes very clear both Malcolm’s human, emotional roots and his humor, which is so often mentioned in accounts of the man.
Al Freeman Jr.’s wary reserve, self-satisfaction, and halting, careful, high-pitched readings make Elijah Muhammad the unique, memorable figure he must be. In addition to Albert Hall, the other standout supporting turn comes from Delroy Lindo as West Indian Archie, who introduces young Malcolm to a life of crime. Angela Bassett is a warm, loving Betty Shabazz, and Lonette McKee has moments of high emotion as Malcolm’s besieged mother.
Various periods from the 1940s through the mid-1960s have been elaborately evoked by production designer Wynn Thomas, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, costume designer Ruth Carter and the multitude of behind-the-scenes craftspeople (end credits last nine minutes). Score nicely mixes pop tunes of different eras with dramatic original compositions by Terence Blanchard.
But Lee has indulged himself and his subject by letting it run so long — even at one glance, it is easy to see where he might have cut at least a half-hour and better served his artistic cause.
Beginning the film with one of Malcolm’s inflammatory speeches accompanied by the flag burning and footage from the Rodney King beating gets things off to a provocative start, while final images are equally unusual but rather more benign — a series of shots of some of the celebs who helped Lee out during his financial problems — Michael Jordan, Tracy Chapman, Bill Cosby and others — all wearing “X” caps.
But it is a measure of how the film — as ambitious, right-minded and personal as it is — falls short of its goals that the climactic documentary montage of footage and stills of the real Malcolm proves infinitely more powerful than any of the drama that has preceded it.