Screening Room: Spike Lee’s Malcolm X

Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, which was released in 1992, stands extremely tall eighteen years later. Lee’s near-masterpiece remains the finest depiction of how a great American figure becomes radicalized.

Re-watching the movie, it’s remarkable how some of the old weaknesses have become strengths. During the opening title sequence, for example, Lee makes the heavy-handed choice of intercutting the infamous footage of Rodney King being horribly beaten by LAPD officers. In his DVD commentary, Lee says that this was his way of showing the audience that the things Malcolm was saying in his (which is to say, Denzel Washington’s) voiceover were still just as relevant. At the time, audiences and most critics felt this was beyond heavy-handed. Lee was not only spoiling the illusion right at the opening of his film, but he was also (in his way, however well-intentioned) exploiting the plight of Rodney King and the aftermath that engulfed Los Angeles.

Eighteen years later, that choice looks more elegant. While Lee’s work of the 21st century has evolved into far more subtle brushstrokes, his early work is more powerful now than it was when it originally hit screens. When we watch the opening sequence now, in 2010, we’re forced to place both the life of Malcolm and Rodney King in historical context. Both are now matters of “archival” footage. And we also ponder the fact that the young and ambitious Lee lobbied to direct the film, which had been a Norman Jewison vehicle (and it never would have occurred to Jewison, we think to ourselves, to use the Rodney King footage). We think about how Lee, desperate to save the way-over-budget project, reached out to prominent Black-Americans for help, acquiring funds from Bill Cosby, Magic Johnson, Oprah Winfrey, and others. We also realize, now more than ever, that Lee made the right choice in overhauling James Baldwin’s original screenplay (which had for years been one of the most famous passed-on scripts in Hollywood history). Baldwin’s original screenplay lacked the scope that Lee desired: the film, at over three hours in length, resembles more the work of Lean than Cassavettes.

Denzel Washington’s performance lends believability to the film’s main character. It is during the film’s first two acts—before Malcolm converts to Islam in jail and is radicalized—that Washington’s performance works its magic. There we see Malcolm Little, a man who is easy with a smile and a joke, yet capable of smashing a bottle on another man’s face in a split-second’s decision. Washington plays the early Malcolm Little in such a way as to make it all the more striking when he turns into the steely, self-serious Malcolm X.

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