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MALCOLM X
Special Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman Jr., Delroy Lindo
Director:  Spike Lee
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  201 Minutes
Release Date:  February 8, 2004

"Malcolm, can we all live together?"

"I sincerely hope so."

Film ****

Of Spike Lee's work, film critic Roger Ebert once stated:  "He is not interested in congratulating the black people in his audience, or condemning the white ones.  He puts human beings on the screen, and asks his audience to walk a little while in their shoes."

No film supports the veracity of that statement like Lee's masterful Malcolm X.  I remember well my experience with this picture on its opening night...it was one of the best movie going experiences of my life.  It was in a large auditorium, completely sold out, and sadly, I was the only white person in the audience.  I say sadly, because I knew in my heart that the reasons most white people were avoiding, and to a large extent, continue to avoid this picture, were the wrong reasons.  But I went, because I loved Spike Lee, and I anticipated he would address the subject of the fallen civil rights leader with great passion and energy.  Plus, I wanted to learn something about the man who, during my time in school, was presented as little more than a footnote to the story of Dr. Martin Luther King. 

What I got from Lee's film was so much more than knowledge.  By the time the movie was over, I felt like I had indeed walked a mile in Malcolm's shoes, that I had been through what he had been through, that I had reacted with the same horror and disdain at the racial injustice and hatred that had surrounded him all his life, and that I had learned from his experiences what he had learned.  Lee had told Malcolm's story in a way that was indeed passionate and energetic, but more importantly, dignified and honest.

Malcolm's story is often considered an overview of the African American experience during the turbulent years of the civil rights movement.  It is an amazing and inspiring tale of redemption and overcoming, as he grows from just another street criminal to one of the most charismatic and electrifying speakers of the 20th century.  It is the story of how one man, in prison and at the lowest point in his life, found the power within himself to rise out of the ashes of injustice and hatred and be something more than anyone imagined he could be.

The patterns had started early on in his life:  his father, a respected preacher, was brutally murdered, likely by the same Klan members who had terrorized him and his family and had burned down their home.  The state separated Malcolm from his family, placing the young boy in an all white school, where he claims he heard the 'n' word so much, he didn't think there was anything wrong with it.  And despite having the best grades in class, his teacher turns him from his dream of being a lawyer, and suggest he works with his hands instead.  As an adult, Malcolm (Washington) observes the same terrible pattern in the lives around him...his crime boss, for example:  West Indian Archie (Lindo) was a man with a fantastic memory and a head for numbers.  "He could have been a mathematical genius," remarks Malcolm.  If only he hadn't been told repeatedly that he couldn't because of his color.

Later, in prison, Malcolm meets up with Baines (Hall), a Muslim and a follower of the teachings of Elijah Muhammad (Freeman).  With his help, Malcolm begins to take back control of his life.  By the time he leaves prison, he is no longer a common criminal.  He is educated, spiritual, and burning with the desire to confront the white society that had taken so much from him.  He is indeed a changed man.  But one more major change was yet to come.

After a pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm returns to America with the realization that sweeping generalizations against any race is detrimental to solving the race problem, be it white against black or vice versa.  And it is sadly ironic that this new, open attitude marked the beginning of the end of Malcolm X, as his old comrades in the Nation of Islam viewed him as a traitor and an enemy.

By all accounts, Malcolm was fully aware that his time on earth was running out, and we see this from him in this movie, too.  Spike Lee doesn't spare us the horror of the reality:  Malcolm was brutally gunned down in front of his wife and children less than a year after his return from Mecca.  He had grown beyond any one group's simple attempt to define him.  His fresh, loving attitude made him dangerous to those who would hold onto and cherish their hate.

In my film column for Connection magazine, I was once asked to pick three male performances in film that I felt would be the best ones for aspiring movie actors to study closely.  I chose Peter Sellers for his trio of roles in Dr. Strangelove and Humphrey Bogart for his incorporation of physical 'business' into his character study in The Caine Mutiny.  My other choice was Denzel Washington in Malcolm X.  Not only was this an uncannily accurate portrayal of a true historical figure in a way that brought him to life almost like seeing a ghost, but it was a performance that encompassed an incredible range of character change and growth, requiring absolute believability at every juncture.  If we couldn't believe in Malcolm the criminal, it would have detracted from Malcolm the activist.  And if we couldn't believe Malcolm when he reassesses his ideals and lets go of his anger toward the white man, a crucial part of his journey would have been lost.  Denzel Washington delivers a solid performance from beginning to end, offering the greatest of respect to the fallen leader by addressing each aspect of his life with honor and honesty.

Spike Lee does the same.  He does not attempt to gloss over Malcolm's criminal years, which would have lessened the impact of his conversion for the audience.  And as much as he displays the side of Malcolm X that was a vibrant, fearless leader to his people, he also allows us to witness the quiet side of the man, as a husband and father.  Some of the film's most tender and beautiful moments play out between him and his wife, Betty (Bassett).  We see the side of Malcolm that was sometimes afraid, sometimes questioning...and it makes us appreciate his courage all the more.

In the end, Malcolm X's experience has been called a uniquely African American one, but I personally prefer to look at it in even broader terms...it was a uniquely human experience.  Malcolm X taught every one of us an important lesson, regardless of race, creed or nationality.  He taught us by his words and deeds, but also by the life he lived.  When you examine the journey of his life, you can hear the lesson echoing through and through:  that you can't expect to find peace within yourself unless you're willing to let go of your hate, and once you have that peace, nobody else's hate can take it from you.  That, to me, is the legacy of Malcolm X.

Video ***1/2

This anamorphic transfer is much improved over Warner's initial lackluster offering.  I would have liked the movie to have been all on one disc, but I can't deny the improvements spreading it out offered.  Gone are the compression artifacts and chroma noise that affected the original DVD; images are much clearer, cleaner and more detailed.  Colors are more vibrant, too.  A few darker scenes still exhibit a touch of grain here and there, but nothing distracting.

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 mix is bolder than before, with a lot more ambience from the surrounds, more dynamic range, and more power to the subwoofer.  Dialogue is well rendered, as is Terrence Blanchard's music score.  Overall, this is a much livelier and more realistic listening experience.

Features ****

This two disc special edition has plenty of goodies for both film and history enthusiast alike.  There is a new commentary with Spike Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, editor Barry Alexander Brown and costume designer Ruth Carter.  Elsewhere on the disc, Spike mentions that he considers director's commentaries an important learning tool, even for himself, which makes hearing his thoughts on the movie even more welcome.

The first disc also contains 9 deleted scenes with introduction by Spike Lee, a new half hour making of documentary featuring the crew of Malcolm X along with the likes of Al Sharpton, Martin Scorsese and the late great Ossie Davis.  It's a terrific look at the sometimes troubled but eventually triumphant story of how the film made it to the big screen.  Rounding out is the terrific theatrical trailer.

The second disc has the 90 minute Oscar nominated documentary of Malcolm X.  It has plenty of historical footage of the real Malcolm, Elijah Muhammad and others.  It's an interesting historical piece, but kind of fractured in flow as far as a film goes.  There's no real sense of linear narrative to it.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Both the original documentary and the new making-of on this disc are narrated by James Earl Jones.

Summary:

Malcolm X is one of the greatest films of the 90's, and also offers probably the decade's best performance by an actor in Denzel Washington.  This is an epic, powerful biographical movie, filled with passion, energy, honesty and dignity, and even a touch of humor.  It is wonderfully human.  No one should miss the opportunity to view this incredible film and share in the experience of a truly extraordinary life.

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