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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 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
Denzel Washington as Malcolm X
Angela Bassett as Betty Shabazz
Albert Hall as Baines
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- Biographical epic of the controversial and influential Black Nationalist leader, from his early life and career as a small-time gangster, to his ministry as a member of the Nation of Islam.
- Biograpical epic of Malcolm X, the legendary African American leader. Born Malcolm Little, his father (a Garveyite Baptist minister) was killed by the Ku Klux Klan. Malcolm became a gangster, and while in jail discovered the Nation of Islam writings of Elijah Muhammad. He preaches the teachings when let out of jail, but later on goes on a pilgrimage to the city of Mecca, there he converts to the original Islamic religion and becomes a Sunni Muslim and changes his name to El-Hajj Malik Al-Shabazz. He is assassinated on February 21, 1965 and dies a Muslim martyr. — Anonymous
- As the opening credits roll, we hear Malcolm X (Denzel Washington) delivering a speech about the oppression of the black race by the white race, openly and loudly accusing whites of murder, rape and slavery. Intercut with the credits is footage of the 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers and an American flag burning into an "X". In the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, during the early 1940s in the early years of World War II, a teenage Malcolm Little meets with his friend, Shorty (Spike Lee) at a local barber shop to have his hair straightened to make him acceptable to whites. The process is a painful one, with a concoction of eggs and lye applied to Malcolm's head and combed out. Malcolm admires himself in the mirror and he and Shorty take to the streets dressed in colorful "zoot" suits. In a flashback sequence, Malcolm narrates that he grew up poor in rural Nebraska. When his mother was pregnant with him, a small group of Ku Klux Klan riders broke the windows of his parents' house, looking for his father, a local minister and activist. Malcolm later narrates that his family's home was burned down and his father was murdered when he was four or five, thrown in front of a train after suffering a skull injury. The case was falsely recorded as a suicide and his family received no compensation, becoming destitute. Malcolm's mother Louise (Lonette McKee), who was of Caribbean descent and partially white, married his father because he was black and a follower of Marcus Garvey, who preached that Black Americans should return to Africa to have their own region of the world, free of white influence. Eventually, his mother was remanded to a mental institution and Malcolm and his brothers and sisters became wards of the state. Malcolm, while in grade school, showed excellent academic skills and told a teacher he wanted to be a lawyer. However, his racist teacher tells him that it "isn't a practical career for a negro". Flashing back to contemporary 1944, Malcolm and Shorty and their girlfriends go to a jitterbug club. After a rigorous dancing number, Malcolm meets Sophia (Kate Vernon), a white, blond woman who becomes infatuated with him. Malcolm's black girlfriend, Laura (Theresa Randle), is a devout Catholic and has avoided Malcolm's sexual advances. Eventually, Malcolm takes up with Sophia. At one point, he treats her with obvious racial misogyny, getting her to feed him breakfast. Working for a local railroad company, Malcolm travels to Harlem, New York City. He goes to a bar where his drink is doubled unexpectedly by a man named West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo), who runs numbers locally. When Malcolm is harassed by another patron who insults his clothes and speaks ill of his mother, Malcolm hits the man on the head with a liquor bottle. Archie recognizes that Malcolm won't back down in a fight and calls him over to his table. Malcolm sees immediately that Archie is a person of considerable influence and goes to work for him, running numbers. One night, while Malcolm, Sophia and Archie drink and snort cocaine, Malcolm places a bet for several numbers with Archie. One of Malcolm's numbers hits and he stands to collect a large sum of money. Archie denies that Malcolm had the number and reminds his protege of his reputation for never forgetting a number. Malcolm chooses to break his ties with Archie. A few nights later, at a dinner club, Archie threatens Malcolm. Malcolm escapes through the bathroom window. He returns to Boston, reconnects with Shorty and the two resolve to become petty thieves. One of their first partners, Rudy (Roger Guenveur Smith), tells them about a elderly man he takes care of who has money and many valuable items in his house. When Rudy declares he'll lead the group, Malcolm plays Russian Roulette, threatening to blow off Rudy's nose. A terrified Rudy tells Malcolm to lead the group. The robbery is a success and over a period of time, Shorty and Malcolm loot a considerable amount. One night in early 1946, while Shorty and Malcolm straighten Malcolm's hair, they discover the water has been turned off. Malcolm is forced to rinse his head in the toilet bowl and he and Shorty are arrested when the police burst in. Sophia and Peg (Debi Mazar) are also arrested. The racist judge (a cameo by civil rights attorney William Kuntsler), after hearing a guilty verdict, sentences the two white women to 18 months for their association with the robbery group, but harshly sentences both Shorty and Malcolm to eight to ten years for 14 different robbery charges and declares the sentences will be served concurrently (a devastated Shorty literally faints in the courtroom, thinking he'd serve over 100 years until Malcolm explains to him what "concurrent" sentencing is). Malcolm is sent to a Massachusetts penitentiary. On his first day he refuses to recite his incarceration number and is thrown into solitary confinement. The prison priest (Christopher Plummer) tries to reach Malcolm but is obscenely rebuffed. Malcolm is eventually released from solitary and recites his number. While in the showers, straightening his hair, he is met by Baines (Albert Hall), a member of the Nation of Islam, the black Muslim organization of the United States. Baines tells Malcolm that the best way out of prison, both the penitentiary and the figurative prisons of his mind, is through the teachings of Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.), the founder and leader of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm refuses at first but grows more interested in Baines' preaching, especially when he sees the confidence and courage Baines has -- he refuses to show any fear when the prison's guards threaten him. Malcolm becomes a willing student; Baines tells him that all white people are not to be trusted. Baines has Malcolm copy out an entire English language dictionary, pointing out the double-standards that guide words like "black" and "white", telling his student that he must learn the meanings behind every word and that language is the key to using the white race's power against them. Malcolm is reluctant at first to pray directly to Allah until he has a vision in his jail cell of Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad tells him that the only path to truth is through Allah. Malcolm finally gains the courage to pray as a Muslim. Malcolm also becomes a sore point for the prison priest; Malcolm challenges the traditional images of Jesus and the apostles, claiming they were anything but white. Malcolm is paroled from prison in 1952 after serving six years. A few days after his release, he travels to the Nation's headquarters in Chicago where he meets Elijah Muhammad himself. Malcolm is noticeably humbled by the experience and breaks down in awe-filled tears at meeting his savior. As part of joining the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad instructs Malcolm to drop his last name of 'Little', which his ancestors inherited from a white slave owner, and replace it with the letter 'X' which is a symbol of his lost African surname. Malcolm X returns to Harlem and begins his life as a preacher for the Nation of Islam. The Nation sets up a mosque in a single room and their congregation quickly grows over the next few years. At one point, Malcolm, while preaching a sermon, sees Shorty in the crowd. He embraces him, kindly pointing out that Shorty is a representative of his former criminal life and the two go out for coffee. Shorty tries to get Malcolm to join him for a cocaine fix but Malcolm tells him that he's clean. Malcolm gets news about West Indian Archie and his old gang from Shorty and finds out where Archie is living. Archie has since suffered a stroke and lives as an invalid in a squalid Bronx apartment. Malcolm visits him and comforts him when he sees how poor life has become for his old boss. In 1957, Malcolm challenges the Harlem division of the New York City Police Department when one of his temple's members, Brother Johnson, is beaten in the streets and taken to jail and denied medical attention. Malcolm gathers the Fruit of Islam, the Nation's security force, and, joined by a growing mob of local protesters, marches on the police precinct, demanding to see Johnson. When he is turned down he calmly and firmly tells the officers in charge that neither he nor the Fruit of Islam will move until they are satisfied that Johnson is being cared for properly. The silent protest works and Johnson is taken to the hospital. Malcolm orders the Fruit of Islam to disperse and leaves the angry crowd on the street for the police to deal with. As the Nation leaves, the captain (a cameo by Peter Boyle) remarks "that's too much power for one man to have." A short time later, while drinking coffee in a nearby cafe, a young man named Benjamin (Jean LaMarre), who'd witnessed the police beating of Brother Johnson and was impressed with Malcolm's stolid handling of the police, approaches Malcolm and asks him how he can become a Muslim. Malcolm questions Benjamin carefully, saying he shouldn't join an organization if he doesn't understand it. Benjamin becomes disappointed and begins to leave when Malcolm tells him he shouldn't give up that easily either. Malcolm invites him to come to his temple the next day. Benjamin leaves, promising he'll make Malcolm proud of him. In 1958, Malcolm meets his future wife, nurse Betty Sanders (Angela Bassett). The two are instantly attracted to each other and Malcolm eventually proposes to her. They are married in a private ceremony and plan to have children. They are soon the parents of four daughters. Over the next few years as Malcolm's influence grows, he soon finds himself in a high advisory position to Elijah Muhammad himself, which draws much jealously from Baines. As a result, Malcolm receives less attention in the Nation's official publication, "Muhammad Speaks". Baines speaks to Muhammad directly, telling him that Malcolm may be shamelessly courting the white media for himself, rather than for the good of the Nation. Following a formal public speaking session, Malcolm is confronted by a disgruntled man who suggests that Muhammad may not be the benevolent leader the Nation believes him to be. In 1962, Malcolm and Betty argue bitterly over reports in the New York Post that claim Muhammad may have fathered illegitimate children with at least two unmarried women who served on his office staff. Betty's argument also points to the manner with which Malcolm has been largely ignored by the leadership of the Nation. Following their small fight, Malcolm talks to the women who confirm the reports and have been ostracized within the Nation. Malcolm privately confronts Muhammad who claims that, because he himself never married, that he must father his progeny any way he can. Baines also tries to justify Muhammad's philandering by recounting the stories of both Noah (a drunk) and Solomon (who had many wives). Malcolm is not convinced and loses much of his stature and faith in the Nation of Islam. In late November 1963, Malcolm's candid and brutally truthful reputation is further damaged when, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, publicly states that the president's death was an example of the historical violence of the white race and the United States itself, referring to the incident as an example of "the chickens coming home to roost." The remark is quickly misconstrued in American newspapers, prompting anger from both the black and white establishments. Muhammad, who appears to be in poor health, decides to sideline Malcolm by informing him that his duties as the Nation of Islam's spokesperson are suspended for 90 days. Malcolm is enraged by what he sees as a clear case of betrayal by both Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, but he none the less accepts and submits to the punishment. In early 1964, during his suspension, Malcolm announces publicly that he'll be establishing a new organization called Muslim Mosque Inc, one that will allow white people to aide them but not permit them to join. Malcolm also announces he will complete a "hajj", a holy journey of self-discovery to the Middle East and Mecca in Saudi Arabia, required of all Muslims if they are able. He tours the ancient pyramids at Giza, knowing that he's being tailed by two men he assumes are CIA agents. Arriving in Mecca, he participates in the Muslim ritual of the seven circuits around the Kaaba, drinks from the Well of Zamzam and kisses the Black Stone. He also realizes that Islam is not limited to people of Arab, Middle Eastern or African descent, but the many people in his pilgrimage include quite a few Caucasian whites, mixed race people and Asians as well. Malcolm willingly eats and prays with them. The hajj changes Malcolm's outlook and he experiences a spiritual re-awakening, realizing that exclusion of races other than African-Americans from Islam cannot accomplish anything. Returning to the United States, he gives a press conference where he declares that his days of preaching for African-American separation from white America are over. He forms a new Islamic organization, the Organization for African-American Unity (OAAU), one that will spread the word of tolerance of all who wish to worship Allah and the Qur'an, and which involves breaking his relations with the Nation of Islam. Malcolm also gives himself a new Arab Islamic name, "El-Hajj Malik Al-Shabazz." Very soon, Malcolm's family begins to receive death threats on the phone from Nation of Islam members. In September 1964, Malcolm is photographed guarding his house at night with a rifle. One night in February 1965, two firebombs are thrown at Malcolm's house in Queens and he gives a public statement to a television news crew outside that if he'd actually seen the bombers himself, he'd have opened fire on them in the street. Baines himself gives a public statement to the media, suggesting Malcolm may have fire-bombed his own house as a publicity stunt. Afterwords, Baines sends a message via a written note to five men that Malcolm survived the firebombing and they are to continue to carry on with their orders to kill Malcolm. Malcolm receives further death threats and becomes somewhat despondent. He arranges to speak at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem on February 21, 1965, his first such public speech since founding OAAU. Malcolm goes to a New York hotel and stays overnight there, possibly to draw attention away from his family. He receives more death threats from the Nation of Islam in his hotel room. He drives to the Audubon and meets a woman on the street who tells him not to listen to his detractors and that Jesus will protect him -- Malcolm acknowledges her kindness. One of his men, Brother Earl (James McDaniel), wants to position guards around the stage and podium and wants everyone attending to be searched to insure Malcolm's safety. Malcolm refuses, saying he wants the attendees of the speech to feel relaxed. Malcolm also becomes angry when his staff inform him that the OAAU program hasn't been completed and that the reverend scheduled to speak before Malcolm cannot attend. The rest of the staff are excused and Malcolm speaks alone to Brother Earl, muttering about the present day being "a time for martyrs." He also refuses to postpone the engagement when Earl suggests it. Earl leaves and Malcolm prepares his notes. In the auditorium, Betty and Malcolm's four daughters are seated in the front row while Brother Benjamin 2X (the same young man from the cafe scene) speaks ahead of Malcolm and introduces him. Malcolm steps to the podium and greets the crowd when a man in the back row suddenly starts shouting at someone... intended as a distraction. While the security guards run over and deals with the yelling man (exactly as planned), a man in the second row pulls out a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun, runs up to the stage and opens fire. Malcolm (seeing the armed man approach and aware that he is a dead man) smiles slightly and is hit in his left shoulder and chest by two shotgun blasts and falls to the stage. Two additional assassins seated in the front row also run forward to the stage and shoot Malcolm several more times with semi-automatic pistols. As the killers run out of the auditorium, one of handgun shooters, Thomas Hayer (Giancarlo Esposito), is shot in his right leg by one of Malcolm's bodyguards. Hampered by his bullet wound, he is caught and beaten by the angry crowd outside the front entrance of the building. The police arrive a minute later to place the captured assassin under arrest before quietly entering the building to find Betty holding her dead husband and crying. Malcolm's body is taken to a nearby hospital just down the street where he is declared dead-on-arrival from multiple gunshot wounds. The story ends with Martin Luther King's weary statement on Malcolm's death and the violence that caused it. The same eulogy delivered by Ossie Davis at Malcolm's memorial services plays over a montage of film and photographs of the real Malcolm. Footage of Nelson Mandela (recently released from prison after 30 years) speaking to a South African grade school class is also shown. The final shot is of Malcolm himself proclaiming "By any means necessary!"
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Review/Film; 'Malcolm X,' as Complex as Its Subject
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By Vincent Canby
- Nov. 18, 1992
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
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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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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.