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Spike Lee 's "Malcolm X" is one of the great screen biographies, celebrating the whole sweep of an American life that began in sorrow and bottomed out on the streets and in prison before its hero reinvented himself. Watching the film, I understood more clearly how we do have the power to change our own lives, how fate doesn't deal all of the cards. The film is inspirational and educational - and it is also entertaining, as movies must be before they can be anything else.

Its hero was born Malcolm Little. His father was a minister who preached the beliefs of Marcus Garvey, the African-American leader who taught that white America would never accept black people and that their best hope lay in returning to Africa. Years later, Malcolm would also become a minister and teach a variation on this theme, but first he had to go through a series of identities and conversions and hard lessons of life.

He was victimized by violence. His father was murdered, probably by the Klan, which had earlier burned down the family house. His mother was unable to support her children, and Malcolm was parceled out to a foster home.

He was the brightest student in his classes but was steered away from ambitious career choices by white teachers who told him that, as a Negro, he should look for something where he could "work with his hands." One of his early jobs was as a Pullman porter, and then, in Harlem, he became a numbers runner and small-time gangster.

During that stage of his life, in the late 1940s, he was known as "Detroit Red," and ran with a fast crowd - including white women who joined him for sex and burglaries. Arrested and convicted, he was sentenced to prison; the movie quotes him that he got one year for the burglaries and seven years for associating with white women while committing them. Prison was the best thing that happened to Red, who fell into the orbit of the Black Muslim movement of Elijah Muhammad and learned self-respect.

The movie then follows Malcolm as he sheds his last name - the legacy, the Muslims preached, of slaveowners - and becomes a fiery street-corner preacher who quickly rises until he is the most charismatic figure in the Black Muslims, teaching that whites are the devil and that blacks must become independent and self-sufficient.

But there was still another conversion ahead; during a pilgrimage to Mecca, he was embraced by Muslims of many colors and returned to America convinced that there were good people of peace in all races.

Not long after, in 1965, he was assassinated - probably by members of the Muslim sect he had broken with.

This is an extraordinary life, and Spike Lee has told it in an extraordinary film. Like " Gandhi ," the movie gains force as it moves along; the early scenes could come from the lives of many men, but the later scenes show a great original personality coming into focus. To understand the stages of Malcolm's life is to walk for a time in the steps of many African Americans, and to glimpse where the journey might lead.

Denzel Washington stands at the center of the film, in a performance of enormous breadth. He never seems to be trying for an effect, and yet he is always convincing; he seems as natural in an early scene, clowning through a railroad club car with ham sandwiches, as in a later one, holding audiences spellbound on streetcorners, in churches, on television and at Harvard. He is as persuasive early in the film, wearing a zoot suit and prowling the nightclubs of Harlem, as later, disappearing into a throng of pilgrims to Mecca. Washington is a congenial, attractive actor, and so it is especially effective to see how he shows the anger in Malcolm, the unbending dogmatic side.

Accomplished storytelling Lee tells his story against an epic background of settings and supporting characters (the movie is a gallery of the memorable people in Malcolm's life). Working with cinematographer Ernest Dickerson , Lee paints the early Harlem scenes in warm, sensuous colors, and then uses cold, institutional lighting for the scenes in prison. In many of the key moments in Malcolm's life as a public figure, the color photography is intercut with a black and white, quasi-documentary style that suggests how Malcolm's public image was being shaped and fixed.

That image, at the time of his death, was of a man widely considered racist and dogmatic - a hatemonger, some said. It is revealing that even Martin Luther King Jr., seen in documentary footage making a statement about Malcolm's death, hardly seems overcome with grief. The liberal orthodoxy of the mid-1960s taught that racism in America could be cured by legislation, that somehow the hopeful words in the folksongs would all come true. Malcolm doubted it would be that simple.

Yet he was not the monolithic ideologue of his public image, and one of the important achievements of Lee's film is the way he brings us along with Malcolm, so that anyone, black or white, will be able to understand the progression of his thinking. Lee's films always have an underlying fairness, an objectivity that is sometimes overlooked. A revealing scene in "Malcolm X" shows Malcolm on the campus of Columbia University, where a young white girl tells him that her heart is in the right place and that she supports his struggle. "What can I do to help?" she asks. "Nothing," Malcolm says coldly, and walks on. His single word could have been the punch line for the scene, but Lee sees more deeply, and ends the scene with the hurt on the young woman's face. There will be a time, later in Malcolm's life, when he will have a different answer to her question.

Romantic relationships are not Lee's strongest suit, but he has a warm, important one in "Malcolm X," between Malcolm and his wife, Betty ( Angela Bassett ), who reminds her future husband that even revolutionary leaders must occasionally pause to eat and sleep.

It is her sweetness and support that help him to find the gentleness that got lost in Harlem and prison.

Al Freeman Jr. is quietly amazing as Elijah Muhammad, looking and sounding like the man himself and walking the screenplay's tightrope between his character's importance and his flaws. Albert Hall is also effective, as the tough Muslim leader who lectures Malcolm on his self-image, who leads him by the hand into self-awareness, and then later grows jealous of Malcolm's power within the movement. And there is a powerful two-part performance by Delroy Lindo , as West Indian Archie, the numbers czar who first impresses Malcolm with his power and later moves him with his weakness.

Walking into "Malcolm X," I expected an angrier film than Spike Lee has made. This film is not an assault but an explanation, and it is not exclusionary; it deliberately addresses all races in its audience. White people, going into the film, may expect to meet a Malcolm X who will attack them, but they will find a Malcolm X whose experiences and motives make him understandable and finally heroic.

Reasonable viewers are likely to conclude that, having gone through similar experiences, they might also have arrived at the same place.

Black viewers will not be surprised by Malcolm's experiences and the racism he lived through, but they may be surprised to find that he was less one-dimensional than his image, that he was capable of self-criticism and was developing his ideas right up until the day he died.

Spike Lee is not only one of the best filmmakers in America, but one of the most crucially important, because his films address the central subject of race. He doesn't use sentimentality or political cliches, but shows how his characters live, and why.

Empathy has been in short supply in our nation recently. Our leaders are quick to congratulate us on our own feelings, slow to ask us to wonder how others feel. But maybe times are changing. Every Lee film is an exercise in empathy. 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.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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Malcolm X (1992)

Rated PG-13 For A Scene Of Violence, and For Drugs and Some Language

202 minutes

Denzel Washington as Malcolm X

Angela Bassett as Betty Shabazz

Albert Hall as Baines

Directed by

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Review/Film; 'Malcolm X,' as Complex as Its Subject

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By Vincent Canby

Review/Film; 'Malcolm X,' as Complex as Its Subject

Malcolm X lived a dozen different lives, each in its way a defining aspect of the black American experience from nightmare to dream. There was never any in-between for the man who was initially called Malcolm Little, the son of a Nebraska preacher, and who, when he died, was known by his Muslim name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Malcolm traveled far, through many incarnations to become as much admired as he was feared as the black liberation movement's most militant spokesman and unrelenting conscience.

Malcolm was already something of a myth when he was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in New York on Feb. 21, 1965, just three months short of his 40th birthday. The publication later that year of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," his remarkably vivid testament written with Alex Haley, eventually consolidated his position as a great American folk hero, someone whose life speaks with uncanny pertinence to succeeding generations, white as well as black.

Taking the autobiography and a screenplay by Arnold Perl that was begun more than 20 years ago (Perl died in 1971), Spike Lee has attempted the impossible and almost brought it off. His new "Malcolm X" is not exactly the equal, or even the equivalent, of the book, but it's an ambitious, tough, seriously considered biographical film that, with honor, eludes easy characterization.

"Malcolm X" will offend many people for all the wrong reasons. It is neither so inflammatory as Mr. Lee's statements about it would have you believe nor so comforting as might be wished by those who would call a halt to speculation concerning Malcolm's murder. It is full of color and exuberance as it tells of life on the streets in Boston and New York, but it grows increasingly austere when Malcolm is arrested for theft and sent to prison, where he finds his life's mission. The movie becomes proper, well mannered and somber, like Malcolm's dark suits and narrow ties, as it dramatizes his rise in the Nation of Islam, founded by Elijah Muhammad.

Mr. Lee treats the Nation of Islam and its black separatist teachings seriously and, just as seriously, Malcolm's disillusionment when Elijah Muhammad's fondness for pretty young secretaries is revealed. When, after his split from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm goes on his pilgrimage to Mecca, the film celebrates his new insight into racial brotherhood, which makes his assassination all the more sorrowful.

In the film's view, a god has been recognized, then lost.

Mr. Lee means for "Malcolm X" to be an epic, and it is in its concerns and its physical scope. In Denzel Washington it also has a fine actor who does for "Malcolm X" what Ben Kingsley did for "Gandhi." Mr. Washington not only looks the part, but he also has the psychological heft, the intelligence and the reserve to give the film the dramatic excitement that isn't always apparent in the screenplay.

This isn't a grave fault, nor is it singular. Biographical films, except those about romantic figures long since dead like "Lawrence of Arabia," carry with them responsibilities that tend to inhibit. Mr. Lee has not been inhibited so much as simultaneously awe struck and hard pressed.

"Malcolm X" is frank about what it sees as the murder conspiracy, which involves a combination of people representing the Nation of Islam and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Yet in trying to cover Malcolm's life from his boyhood to his death, it sometimes seems more breathlessly desperate than cogently revealing.

The movie picks up Malcolm's story in the 1940's on his arrival in wartime Boston as a bright but square teen-ager from rural Michigan. Malcolm eagerly falls in with the wrong crowd, initially represented by Shorty (Mr. Lee), a street hustler who shows him how to dress (a pearl gray zoot suit) and introduces him to the fast set at the Roseland Ballroom. Malcolm learns how to Lindy and how to wheel and deal. He discovers women and drugs. In addition to his attachment to Laura (Theresa Randle), a sweet young black woman, he develops a far steamier liaison with a thrill-seeking young white woman, Sophia, played by Kate Vernon, who looks a lot like Carroll Baker in her "Baby Doll" days.

As the film moves forward from the 40's, it suffers spasms of flashbacks to Malcolm's childhood in Nebraska and Michigan. These are so fragmented that they may mean nothing to anyone who hasn't read the autobiography. They also don't do justice to the early experiences themselves, especially to Malcolm's time in a white foster home where he excelled in school and was encouraged by well-meaning adults who did not hesitate to refer to him as a "nigger."

Mr. Lee is very good in his handling of individual sequences, but until very near the end, "Malcolm X" fails to acquire the momentum that makes everything that happens seem inevitable. The film goes on and on in a kind of reverential narrative monotone.

The story of Malcolm X is fraught with pitfalls for any movie maker. Mr. Lee is creating a film about a man he admires for an audience that includes those who have a direct interest in the story, those who may not have an interest but know the details intimately and those who know nothing or only parts of the story. It's a tricky situation for anyone committed to both art and historical truth.

Mr. Lee's method is almost self-effacing. He never appears to stand between the material and the audience. He himself does not preach. There are no carefully inserted speeches designed to tell the audience what it should think. He lets Malcolm speak and act for himself. The moments of confrontational melodrama, something for which Mr. Lee has a particular gift, are quite consciously underplayed.

In this era of aggressive anti-intellectualism, the film's most controversial subtext might not even be recognized: Malcolm's increasing awareness of the importance of language in his struggle to raise black consciousness. Vaguely articulated feelings aren't enough. Ideas can be expressed only through a command of words.

Before Mr. Lee came to the "Malcolm X" project, other people had worked on it. In addition to Perl's screenplay, there were adaptations by James Baldwin, David Mamet, Calder Willingham, David Bradley and Charles Fuller. In retrospect, it's easy to see what their difficulties might have been.

Though the autobiography is full of characters and incidents, they are only peripheral to the larger story of Malcolm's awkward journey toward intellectual and spiritual enlightenment. Then too, Malcolm's life ended before the journey could be said to have been completed. This is not the sort of thing movies accommodate with ease.

"Malcolm X" never bursts with the free-flowing energy of the director's own fiction, but that's a reflection of the genre, the subject and Mr. Lee's sense of mission. Though the film is being promoted with all sorts of merchandise on the order of T-shirts and baseball caps, the one item that promotes it best is the new book, "By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of 'Malcolm X,' " by Mr. Lee with Ralph Wiley, published by Hyperion.

In addition to the screenplay, the book has an extensive report on the research Mr. Lee did before starting the production. Among the people he interviewed was the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, who succeeded Elijah Muhammad as the head of the Nation of Islam. It was apparently a polite encounter, but Mr. Lee remains sharp, skeptical and uninhibited. He's not a reporter to let anyone else have the last word. It's this sort liveliness that is most missed in the film.

The real triumph of "Malcolm X" is that Mr. Lee was able to make it at all. As photographed by Ernest Dickerson and designed by Wynn Thomas, the movie looks as authentic as any David Lean epic. The large cast of featured players, including Al Freeman Jr., who plays Elijah Muhammad, and Angela Barrett, who plays Malcolm's wife, Betty Shabazz, is supplemented by, among others, Al Sharpton, Christopher Plummer, Bobby Seale, William Kunstler and Peter Boyle in cameo roles.

Nelson Mandela, photographed in Soweto, appears at the end to speak a kind of benediction.

"Malcolm X" is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has vulgar language and some violence. Malcolm X Directed by Spike Lee; screenplay by Arnold Perl and Mr. Lee, based on the book "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" as told to Alex Haley; director of photography, Ernest Dickerson; edited by Barry Alexander Brown; music by Terence Blanchard; production designer, Wynn Thomas; produced by Marvin Worth, Mr. Lee, Monty Ross, Jon Kilik and Preston Holmes; released by Warner Brothers. Running time: 199 minutes. This film is rated PG-13. Malcolm X . . . Denzel Washington Betty Shabazz . . . Angela Bassett Elijah Muhammad . . . Al Freeman Jr. West Indian Archie . . . Delroy Lindo Baines . . . Albert Hall Shorty . . . Spike Lee Laura . . . Theresa Randle Sophia . . . Kate Vernon Louise Little . . . Lonette McKee Earl Little . . . Tommy Hollis Brother Earl . . . James McDaniel Sidney . . . Ernest Thompson Benjamin 2X . . . Jean LaMarre Speaker No. 1 . . . Bobby Seale Speaker No. 2 . . . Al Sharpton Chaplain Gill . . . Christopher Plummer Miss Dunne . . . Karen Allen Captain Green . . . Peter Boyle Judge . . . William Kunstler

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Malcolm X Essay

571 words 2 page(s)

Malcolm X, a civil leader dedicated to the advancement and the equal treatment of blacks in America. Unfortunately, his untimely death through assassination shocked the world and marked the end of a civil rights era. Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little, had a life surrounded by tragedy as his father was murder at the age of six and his mother was placed into a mental hospital when Malcolm turned 13. Although faced with the difficulties of discrimination and racism, Malcolm X was able to rise to the occasion and become a Muslim minister. Due to his successful career as a civil rights activist, Malcolm X has had numerous biographies written about the events in his life, as well as the autobiography he released.

In the autobiography, Malcolm spoke of his time in the Massachusetts State prison. During his time there, Malcolm experienced significant growth both intellectually and spiritually. Sadly during this portion of Malcolm’s life he underwent severe withdraws from his prior excessive drug use. Due to his withdraws and his unsettling temperament, Malcolm X had been moved to solitary confinement and was nicknamed after one of the most temperamental literary figures of all time, Satan.

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Although Malcolm was experiencing one of the worst moments of his life at this point, he was able to meet a man by the name of Bimbi. Bimbi was quite the prisoner and Malcolm X really admired his confidence. Bimbi was a man whose confidence awarded him the respect of his fellow prisoners, as well as, the guards in the prison. Bimbi sees opportunity in Malcolm and begins to convince him to look past the tragedy he had previously experienced and to broaden his horizons by learning from his past and letting go of it. Malcolm X begins to make use of the prison library, although there was few books in it, Malcolm learned from each and every one. He was even able to grasp the English language better making him sound more intelligent. This learning process taught him how to channel and innate rage into a valid argument, one that should be taken seriously.

Eventually, Malcolm X is transferred to Norfolk Prison. This prison colony had far less violence and more academic opportunities. The library was massive compared to the one at Massachusetts State and more inmates studied at the prison colony. With fellow inmates, whose intellect matched his own, Malcolm X was able to debate with them. These debates taught Malcolm the importance of intellect and demonstrated its power, all while teaching Malcolm how to debate in a more rational way.

Through his studies Malcolm learns about the religion of Islam. Malcolm’s brother teaches him a few things about the Muslim religion, specifically the teachings of Muhammad. Muhammad taught that all white men are devils, which caused Malcolm X to think back about the white men he had known over the years. Unfortunately, Malcolm couldn’t think of one good one.

This passage from Malcolm X’s autobiography showed his first steps towards becoming the radical political religious leader he had destined to be. This point in his life proved to be one of the most crucial and his time spent in prison molded him into the political leader he became later known for. Although his method were viewed as extreme, Malcolm was determined to fight against the white man and achieve the dream of equal treatment of blacks by any means necessary.

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