Malcolm X Asolutely Robbed by The Academy, and so was Denzel from an Oscar

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Commercial Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Not much to say except what a man.

Submitted: January 07, 2009

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Submitted: January 07, 2009

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Spike Lee struggled mightily to get 'Malcolm X' made, financially and artistically. But when all was said and done, he produced an epic blockbuster and a definite treatment of the man's life.

There's great differences between the two as well, but to me Lee has many things in common with Oliver Stone. Both of them seem to have been born to make films. Both of them are uncompromising in bringing their artistic (and moral) vision to the screen, and neither will try to seduce the public by catering to their tastes. Both present their own interpretation of facts without apology. (For example, from what I've read it's not certain that Malcolm's father was actually killed by Klansmen. But Lee isn't in the same league as Stone when it comes to playing fast and loose with the "truth.") Stone even ends his movie 'Nixon' in a similar way to 'Malcolm X,' with footage of real-life figures blended in, though I'm not accusing Stone of imitation.

This movie has an epic sweep and scope and as a director Lee is up to the challenge. He is served well by being able to direct in several styles, one of which is almost cartoonish: witness the scene where Malcolm (Denzel Washington) and Shorty (played by Lee himself) go stepping out at the Roseland Ballroom, resplendent in their zoot suits. Some comic relief is welcome at times because otherwise the serious, heavy message of the picture might be overwhelming. For instance, the movie opens with a full-screen shot of an American flag while we hear a voice-over of one of Malcolm's most rousing, or inflammatory speeches, depending on how you look at it ("I accuse the white man of being the greatest murderer on the planet!") The flag begins to burn and eventually forms a flaming 'X' as the fiery rhetoric continues. But if you haven't been scared away, the next scene shows the young man Malcolm Little in a funny situation, having his hair straightened by a concoction that threatens to burn off his scalp.

Denzel Washington has won beaucoups of rightly-deserved accolades for his amazing performance in the title role. If you've ever heard or seen Malcolm X's speaking, you will be astounded at the similarities in tone and cadence. The illusion is so real one may not recognize that real archival footage of Malcolm is used late in the film. But this is not a case of style over substance here. Between Washington's talent and Lee's directing and screenwriting, an unforgettable character emerges. The film boasts other fine performances by Al Freeman, Jr. (especially good as Elijah Muhammad, a controversial figure in society, and eventually to Malcolm himself), Delroy Lindo, Albert Hall, Kate Vernon, Ernest Thomas and many others in its large cast.

It's clear that Lee doesn't care for the Motion Picture Academy and they don't particularly care for him. But the snubbing he and his picture got at Oscar time would be comparable to Richard Attenborough and 'Ghandi' not being nominated the year that film was made. Ordinarily, one would think this film is the kind of production Hollywood loves to honor. But Academy Award nominations or not, the film 'Malcolm X' is like the man himself: impossible to ignore.

Malcolm X cannot truthfully be said to be one of Spike Lee's best films, but it was an important step for him, perhaps the most important one of his career. This biopic, and Spike's fifth full-length feature, makes only partial sense as a follow-up to his greatest classics, Do The Right Thing, Mo' Better Blues and Jungle Fever, the three films in which he created and developed his unique voice and made a name for himself as one of the most prominent independent filmmakers in the US; Spike's own voice can barely be heard in Malcolm X, and his usually immediately recognizable trademarks are tough to point out. The reason is that for the first time in his career Spike Lee took a step back, and he is not the dominant personality in the film; the dominant personality is Malcolm X himself, and Spike let Malcolm's voice be heard throughout the film louder than anything else.

So Malcolm X is less a work of art and more a statement than Spike's previous films. It's scope is immensely larger than anything he did before - it does, after all, span 200 minutes - and is therefore, naturally, not as tight and focused as Do The Right Thing or Jungle Fever; but in Malcolm X Spike tackles head on the very subjects he treated with symbolism and subtlety in those films, and it was therefore a natural and important progression for him, and a logical continuation of those movies, and in it he proved that he has more than one voice. In a biopic, and for that matter, in any docu-drama, the most important factor is for the director to care about the subject, and I'm yet to see a director who's more passionate about his subject than Mr. Lee.

Malcolm X boasts a huge ensemble casts, with wonderful performances by Delroy Lindo, Angela Bassette, Al Freeman Jr. (in a harrowing performance as Muslim extremist Elijah Muhammad) and Spike Lee himself - but the movie is still entirely Malcolm X's, and therefore Denzel Washington's. Spike's protégé gave a lifetime performance in Mo' Better Blues two years earlier, but he surpassed it with his gut-wrenching portrayal of Malcolm X, which earned him an Oscar nomination (unfortunately lost to Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman) and based him as one of the best actors of his generation.

Although Malcolm X is not Spike Lee's best film, it's an important film that needed to be made, and it's a good thing that Spike was the one to do it. More than it's an impressive, moving, beautiful movie - and it is - Malcolm X's story is a story that must be heard, and this biopic is a film that, truly, every cultured and intelligent person needs to watch.


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