Malcolm X ★★★★

Malcolm X is a labor of great love and admiration from Spike Lee. At 202 minutes, the film was clearly an enormous undertaking and Lee fills out the details of Malcolm's life (basically from birth to death) with great care.

Being indulgent as he often is, Lee probably could have benefitted from cutting the film down a bit, but the substance of what we see on screen is largely compelling and necessary in comprehensively conveying the weight and significance of this person's transformation from a thief and skirt-chaser to a powerful ideological leader. I think Lee's ability to inspiringly portray that gradual change in character is the film's greatest asset.

The cast is uniformly strong. Angela Bassett, Delroy Lindo Albert Hall and Al Freeman Jr. are all especially outstanding. As for Denzel Washington in the title role, I think he's very good, but as is usually the case with him, I'm not sure there was ever a moment where the actor disappeared and all I saw was the character. There are too many classic Denzel-isms in his manner of speech and body language (even post-Malcolm Little) for me to totally buy into him. Still, it's a commendable performance and had it been delivered by another actor, the film might not work as well as it does.

A couple of additional observations: It felt to me like the film's first half had a strong air of artificiality in the way that scenes were staged and shot — a lot of scenes that have that familiar "biopic feel" and conversations that don't feel genuine. Although I think the movie's second half is better, it still carries many of the same types of moments. In other words, there's quite a bit about the public Malcolm (with several speech sequences), but not so much about the private Malcolm (or at least Malcolm in a more abstract sense). I don't expect to see some sort of titillating behind-the-scenes material, but it would be nice to see him from a slightly less conventional angle. I must say, though, some of the non-linear, almost surreal editing choices (imaginary gun shots, the sudden flashbacks, etc.) are pretty neat and I wish there were more things like that in the film.

Also, concerning the mini-documentary that plays right before the credits. I love how it's done, I love the sentiment and I love the note it sends the film out on, but its aesthetic is so strikingly out of step with everything else in the movie that it comes off as awkward and a bit forced. It sums up and drives the film's thesis home in about 5 minutes, leaving me wondering why it was necessary to watch the preceding 197. To my mind, you should, as a filmmaker, be capable of getting those ideas and sentiments across without wildly changing course and resorting to a eulogy delivered directly to the audience. Yes, it is stirring, but it feels too much like an easy out.

All things considered, though, Malcolm X is a passionate piece of work that shows a clear understanding of its subject, his times and his importance when it comes to influencing the identity, resiliency and uncompromising spirit of black and brown people in America and throughout the world.

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