Malcolm X: Special Edition
"Many will say turn away from this man, for he is not a man, but a demon, a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the black man and we will smile." Those were but a few of the many eloquent words spoken by a forward-looking Ossie Davis as he eulogized Malcolm X in the winter of 1965. Even then, caught up in the tumult of the civil rights movement, Davis and others knew that Malcolm's complex legacy one of painful evolution from petty criminal to fiery demagogue to conscientious leader would struggle against the simplification of American history. However, what they could not have predicted was that, 20 years later, this hugely important man would be completely excised from black history curricula in predominantly white communities that favored the inclusive, inspiring, but safely anodyne message of Martin Luther King, Jr. A combination of educators blanching at the thought of rending the scabs of past upheaval, as well as the rigors of dealing with nuance in a society that has traditionally been unable to concurrently hold two radically opposed ideas in its collective mind, Malcolm X was reduced to a rumor hidden in the Biography section of local libraries where white children would never know to look for it. Then came 1989, and Public Enemy, and KRS-One peering out a window armed with an Uzi, and, most importantly, Do the Right Thing, its intentionally contradictory epilogue sending curious white teenagers scrambling for the slain black leader's fascinating autobiography, which their parents had to allow since it was dictated to that nice man who wrote Roots. Suddenly, Malcolm X, the man who terrified a nation, had returned with a vengeance to seduce the children of willfully forgetful Baby Boomers.
As with all pop-cultural phenomena, all eyes naturally turned towards Hollywood, whence a cash-in was surely forthcoming. Cleverly, (and, in the face of a black filmmaking renaissance, insensitively), Warner Brothers handed off the property to the uncontroversial Norman Jewison, raising hackles among everyone who knew the film of Malcolm's life was fated to be directed by the man who helped reintroduce him American audiences: Spike Lee, who subsequently strong-armed the well-intentioned liberal off the project and claimed it as his own. Audaciously, and against the efforts of a bond company that did everything to truncate and shut down the production, Lee emerged with a three-hour magnum opus powered by a legendary performance from Denzel Washington as the divisive Black Muslim leader. Examining to a surprisingly unvarnished degree the aforementioned three stages of Malcolm's life, Lee avoided hero worship and crafted a lively, masterfully paced epic of personal transformation that captures the spirit of the autobiography while unavoidably remaining something of a thumbnail sketch of Haley's magnificent work. Beginning in Boston, where a young Malcolm honed his cocky, conk-haired "Detroit Red" persona lindy-hopping to the stomping rhythms of Lionel Hampton's big band, Lee imbues the film with the glorious music of the period, which helps propel it through its first hour with a necessary fleetness. The going gets heavy once Malcolm is consigned to prison, where he's slowly converted to Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam movement by a composite dramatic creation named Baines (Albert Hall). Upon his release, Malcolm begins his rapid ascent to favorite-son status under an encouraging Muhammad (Al Freeman, Jr.) but splits from his mentor when he is exposed to his hypocritical predilection for spreading his seed amongst his female parishioners. This initiates the third stage of Malcolm's life the enlightenment which begins with his hajj to Mecca and concludes with his assassination in Harlem's Audubon Ballroom.
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An artist of broad strokes, Spike Lee commits a multitude of fouls throughout Malcolm X (e.g. leaden foreshadowing with shotgun sound cues, incongruous nods to the events of the early '90s, and stunt cameos), but he invests the work with a depth of feeling frequently absent in major studio biopics. Lee easily could have been paralyzed by the weight of obligation, the need to tell the story cleanly rather than elegantly, but while he does stage the most infamous episodes in Malcolm's life with a jarring triple forte emphasis, he still lets the work breathe with a musical fluidity that's the brilliant stuff of a natural filmmaker. This is in part owing to Terence Blanchard's rich score incendiary, mournful, and delicately hopeful, and trading off seamlessly with Lee's expertly selected pop standards. In many ways, the music really does make the film, particularly in Malcolm's final 24 hours, which swing from a wild paranoia exacerbated by Junior Walker's roaring "Shotgun" to the leader's slow, ethereal trip to the Audubon under the calm benediction of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come," the latter representing one of the most unforgettably haunting passages in film history. And speaking of film history, there would be no movie without Washington's effortlessly modulated central performance, which is so astonishing as to be ineffable. In many ways, Washington deserves as much credit as Lee for the film's artistic success, but the director, in toning down his worst rhetorical tendencies, undergoes a transformation himself, delivering a masterpiece more accessible than Do the Right Thing, and, in three transporting hours, giving American viewers a fuller sense of a man too easily derided as a hatemonger. "Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm?" asked Ossie Davis. For those unwilling to read his autobiography, this is probably the closest they'll ever get to communing with the man. They mustn't turn away.
Warner presents Malcolm: Special Edition in a disappointing anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) that is not only struck from a less than pristine print, but also butchers Lee's framing in many key instances (e.g., Washington all but disappears out of the left portion of the frame whilst staring down Peter Boyle as he disperses his fellow Black Muslims). The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, on the other hand, is fine. And extras on the two-disc SE are terrific, including an informative feature-length commentary with Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, editor Barry Alexander Brown, and costume designer Ruth Carter. For those with limited time on their hands, "By Any Means Necessary: The Making of Malcolm X" is a nice overview of the turbulent production that doesn't sugarcoat the picture's eventual box-office disappointment. Also worth checking out are the nine deleted scenes, all of which are introduced by Lee. However, the best extra of all is the inclusion of Arnold Perl's excellent 1972 documentary Malcolm X, a more emotionally reserved, if still affectionate portrait that fills in some of the gaps left by Lee's film. Dual-DVD keep-case with paperboard slipcase.