Film

On Its 25th Birthday, Spike Lee’s Epic “Malcolm X” Reminds Us That Nothing Has Changed

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Twenty-five years after it was released into theaters, in November 1992, Spike Lee’s epic masterpiece Malcolm X feels like a righteous time-traveling troublemaker pushing eerily prescient buttons for maximum effect. Were it released today, the right-wing of the Twitterverse would almost surely call for a boycott of Warner Bros., considering, among other things, that the movie begins with one of the most unapologetic political statements in studio cinema history. During the opening credits, footage of the Rodney King beating is juxtaposed with an American flag that suddenly bursts into flames. As King’s assault escalates, the flag burns into the shape of an X, the surname of the movie’s controversial hero. Lee puts the viewer immediately on notice: This material will not be handled with kid gloves.

Over the course of 202 minutes, Malcolm X covers such timely topics as white supremacy, sexual impropriety by the powerful, bad policing, and a black activist movement uninterested in coddling the majority. But Lee is no soothsayer predicting the ticking time bombs of 2017 from a director’s chair a quarter-century ago. Instead, one must note that the saddest thing about the contemporary nature of Malcolm X is that it tells us that nothing has changed. Even worse, this was the same conclusion Lee himself reached when he was adapting (with Arnold Perl) the source material from three decades prior, Alex Haley’s 1965 book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The circle remains unbroken, and Lee is in no mood to sugarcoat the facts.

Malcolm X also didn’t sweeten his life story when he told it to Haley, so this screen treatment, starring Denzel Washington, is a warts-and-all affair. Many actors have undertaken the role, from James Earl Jones to Mario Van Peebles to Washington himself, in Lawrence Holder’s 1981 play, When the Chickens Came Home to Roost. But Washington’s career-best, committed performance here is the perfect incarnation, brilliantly traversing Malcolm’s journey from hustler to jailbird to preacher. The dramatic conversions play like mileposts in Washington’s own career. His early scenes simultaneously require the loosey-goosey Denzel of 1989’s The Mighty Quinn and the scary hellfire of 2001’s Training Day. Malcolm’s later progression to important public figure calls for the more serious Denzel that populates many of his more recent films. And his electric speechmaking evokes the fast-talking master of dialogue from 2016’s Fences (in which the actor directed himself).

Those speeches, of which there are many throughout the movie, are treated by Lee like musical numbers: They are outbursts of emotion that drive the narrative. All Spike Lee joints are musicals under the skin — the director cannot resist honoring craftsmen of the form like Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen with his fluid camera movements and blazing use of color — but Malcolm X finds Lee offering up, like cinephile catnip, his most easily spotted homages. In the film’s opening, Lee himself (as a hustler named Shorty) fills the frame, tilting forward as he walks in brash, colorful zoot suit–style attire. It’s as if he were a Nicholas Brother in action, the camera smoothly following him down a Boston street that itself resembles a studio set. Shorty and Malcolm’s subsequent vibrant dance sequence at the club has its own predecessor: the Girl Hunt Ballet in Minelli’s The Band Wagon, with Washington’s lanky frame standing in for Fred Astaire.

Lee also caters to other old-school studio-system influences. When West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo) replaces Malcolm’s flashy ’Bama attire with more monochromatic threads, Malcolm X nods to the black-and-white Warner Bros. gangster pictures of the Thirties. This change is brought further to the fore when Shorty and Malcolm play a goofy game of cops and robbers. “I wanna be Bogart,” says Shorty. When Malcolm points out that Shorty’s too short for that gesture, he retorts, “But I could still be Cagney!”

This scene is also important in that it contains one of Malcolm X’s many portents of its hero’s death. As a mock-wounded Malcolm falls to the ground, Lee shoots him from below, the man laying helplessly and headfirst toward the camera while Shorty, his “killer,” bears down on him. Lee establishes a symbolic inheritance of violence here: Even though the construction of the shot is in jest, the sight of Malcolm’s body struck down before a powerful opponent visually echoes the fate of Malcolm’s father, Reverend Earl Little (Tommy Hollis), whose activism led the KKK to murder him. Klan members caved in his skull and left him to die on nearby railroad tracks. Several times, Lee returns to the near-mirror image of Reverend Little looking helplessly toward the camera as a train bears down on him in the background, the vehicle’s position rhyming with the looming presence of Shorty behind Malcolm during their play-acting. In one of these flashbacks, Lee even gives the middle finger to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, presenting the villainous Klan riding “victoriously” away while a parody-worthy full moon fills the background.

These easily recognizable tropes bring visual familiarity for those new to the director’s work. Lee combines them with his patented style: Scenes have the improvised jazzy riffs one expects, along with Lee’s penchant for darkly humorous merges of sound and image. The latter occurs in a weird moment when Malcolm spins 360 degrees onscreen while Jr. Walker’s “Shotgun” plays on the soundtrack. This occurs minutes before Malcolm will be gunned down. In that same sequence, Lee employs his most haunting use of the famous people-mover shot that’s become his trademark. Malcolm seems to be floating into acceptance of his impending demise. The moment pays off when, just before Malcolm is assassinated, Washington smirks in blatant defiance, knowing that martyrdom brings immortality.

“That’s too much power for one man to have,” a cop played by Peter Boyle says after Malcolm disperses a crowd with a simple hand gesture. At the time, Malcolm X seemed like too big and expensive a picture for this controversial figure. Warner Bros. balked over the budget, which Lee and others supplemented, and the studio didn’t want a three-plus-hour movie about an angry black man who scared the white folks unless Norman Jewison directed it. (When Lee complained that the film should have a black director, Jewison stepped aside without incident.) Despite all this, Lee made the movie he wanted, with a talented cast and an ending that featured Ossie Davis reading Malcolm’s eulogy and a bunch of kids yelling out, “I am Malcolm X!”

As one of the few epic screen histories about a person of color, Malcolm X should be the recipient of a bigger 25th-anniversary celebration. But this weekend’s 35mm BAMcinématek screening, which Lee will introduce, is, at the time of this writing, the only local event New York City will get. It’s on a Saturday, so no one has to skip school — as Lee famously advised back in 1992. Now as ever, the movie deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Wear your X hat.

Malcolm X screens this Saturday, November 18, at BAMcinématek.

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