Malcolm X: Denzel Washington Shines in a Curiously Conventional Biopic (Criterion Blu-ray)
Prolific filmmaker Spike Lee has had an incredible career stretching all the way back to the late '70s, with his two most popular works arguably being the highly-lauded "Do the Right Thing" from 1989, and the much more recent "Blackkklansman" from 2018, which earned him an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. 30 years ago, he made another little film that garnered some mild acclaim entitled "Malcolm X," a biopic about the well-known activist. To celebrate this milestone, Criterion has worked their magic and restored the film for addition to their prestigious collection, so now it's time to go back and take a look at this ambitious epic.
The film chronicles the life of Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) (Denzel Washington), covering periods including his childhood, during which his house is burned down and his father murdered, his teen years in Boston, where he starts dating a woman named Sofia (Kate Vernon) and becomes involved with a gangster called West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo), and his time in prison, where he meets a man named Baines (Albert Hall), who gets him interested in the teachings of Islam. Upon his release, he begins preaching these teachings, which soon earns him a high standing as a spokesperson for the Nation of Islam. However, he also includes several controversial ideas, ideas that soon begin to damage his reputation.
Lee's biopic of this celebrated man was certainly ambitious indeed, taking nearly three and a half hours to tell his life's story, with a marvelous attention to period detail that includes remarkable sets and Ruth E Carter's gorgeous, Oscar-nominated costumes. You can plainly see that Lee wanted to make a straightforward and respectful film that would cover as many important events as possible, but it's this approach that unfortunately ends up holding the film back a little too much, for by the end of this lengthy epic, it seems to have neglected to say much about the man himself. It certainly covers the events of his life in a dutiful, admiring fashion, but it curiously leaves you knowing little more than you already knew.
Because of this somewhat "by the numbers" approach to his life (this happened, and then this happened, etc.), the pacing of the film ends up feeling rather slack, which, for a film that's this long, is not really the best of outcomes. It already shows this issue rather early on as Lee oddly opts to spend quite a bit of time on Malcolm's early criminal days, while later on somewhat speeding through his adoption of the teachings of Islam (one of the areas that would've been great to explore more of). This leads up to the more well-known part of his life, which is mainly displayed through a series of speeches, ultimately ending with his tragic assassination in 1965, and thus concluding Lee's by the book telling of Malcolm's extraordinary life.
Now, all of that is not to say that it's a bad film. It's most certainly not. It's just comes off as a very basic biography of the man, told in a very conventional manner. What ends up being its single biggest asset is the remarkable, Oscar-nominated performance from the brilliant Denzel Washington, who completely disappears into the titular role. His mannerisms, tone, and inflections while deliver the words of Malcolm X are simply stunning, making it no wonder why this is commonly referred to as one of the very best performances of his career (and for a master thespian who is usually fantastic in everything, that's certainly saying something). Additional credit must also be given to a wonderful cast that includes Angela Bassett as Betty Shabazz (Malcolm's wife), Delroy Lindo, and Al Freeman Jr. as Elijah Muhammad (the leader of the Nation of Islam).
However, in the end, you end up wishing that it had been in service to a more revelatory, less conventional biopic. 30 years on, it becomes clear why all the talk of Lee's film revolves around Washington's stunning performance, and not so much around the film itself, for while it does adequately relate the events of Malcolm X's life, there isn't really much here that you couldn't get from any of the many documentaries made about him, or from any of the numerous biographies. It's an admirable film, and the central turn is almost enough to forgive its flaws, but ultimately it just doesn't do its subject quite enough justice.
"Malcolm X" comes to Blu-ray once again in a brand new 4K digital restoration (presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio), supervised by cinematographer Ernest Dickerson. In typical Criterion fashion, the work done makes the film look brand new again, with every frame presenting a clear, sharp image to highlight the film's splendid period detail. Likewise, the 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is exceptional, giving you the dialogue and music in excellent quality. Overall, it should come as no surprise that Criterion has once again ensured a great experience in both areas.
Audio Commentary: An intriguing behind the scenes commentary from 2005, featuring director Spike Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, editor Barry Alexander Brown, and costume designer Ruth E. Carter.
Spike Lee in Conversation (26 Minutes): A conversation between director Spike Lee and journalist/screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper.
Delroy Lindo (17 Minutes): An interview with the actor, who plays West Indian Archie in the film.
Terence Blanchard (19 Minutes): An interview with the composer, focusing on his career with Spike Lee and on Malcolm X in particular.
By Any Means Necessary (30 Minutes): A making-of featurette, featurin of interviews that include Spike Lee, Ossie Davis, Martin Scorsese, Denzel Washington, and many more.
Deleted Scenes (21 Minutes): A selection of nine deleted sequences, each preceded by an introduction from Spike Lee.
Malcolm X (92 Minutes): A 1972 documentary about Malcolm X, featuring interviews, news footage, and narration from James Earl Jones.
Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" is a curiously conventional biopic of an extraordinary individual, dutifully laying out his life story, but ultimately saying little about the man himself, and while Denzel Washington's Oscar-nominated portrayal of the titular activist is brilliant, it's just not quite enough to overcome the film's flaws.
Available on Criterion Blu-ray starting tomorrow.
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