MALCOLM X opens with a pair of intercut, highly polemical images: the notorious video footage of unarmed black motorist Rodney King being beaten by white L.A. policemen; and an American flag burning down into the shape of an "X." Yet this is one of only a few times in the film where
director Spike Lee wears his politics on his sleeve. Lee's biography of the slain civil rights leader treats Malcolm, not as a political rallying point, but as a fully rounded individual whose life defies reduction to symbolic status. The movie begins during WWII, when Malcolm Little (Denzel
Washington) and his friend Shorty (Lee) are hustlers in Boston's Black Roxbury section. We then follow Malcolm's progress as he joins a numbers gang in Harlem; ends up in Charleston State Prison, where fellow inmate Baines (Albert Hall) introduces him to the Islamic religion and the teachings of
Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman, Jr.); adopts the name Malcolm X; meets Elijah Muhammad and becomes a spokesman for the Nation of Islam; marries Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett), a Muslim nurse; has his differences with the Nation crystallized by a pilgrimage to Mecca; and is finally assassinated,
presumably by members of the Nation.
It is Lee's willingness to present all sides of Malcolm's character that makes MALCOLM X so persuasive as a biography. Paradoxically, though, this evenhandedness occasionally seems to blunt the film's power; the anger that drove DO THE RIGHT THING is reduced here. There is no denying, however, the
passion in Denzel Washington's performance, a superlative job of acting that transcends impersonation. Washington impressively brings across Malcolm's power as an orator, whether he's making a fiery outdoor speech to black followers or calmly, forcefully addressing a white collegiate audience. The
rest of the cast is equally fine, particularly Al Freeman, Jr., who does just as persuasive a job of portraying the aging Elijah Muhammad. Lee keeps the film moving at a clip; although it feels long, it's never boring.
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- Released: 1992
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: MALCOLM X opens with a pair of intercut, highly polemical images: the notorious video footage of unarmed black motorist Rodney King being beaten by white L.A. policemen; and an American flag burning down into the shape of an "X." Yet this is one of only a… (more)