The closest that Spike Lee has ever gotten to touching what he managed to leave behind in Do the Right Thing was his own presentation in Malcolm X, a biopic about the famous Afro-American activist. I still remember when I first watched Malcolm X quite vividly, I was only reading about him during one of my history classes and in order to prepare for an essay, I turned on Spike Lee’s feature about the man, for I didn’t see only what I would have thought I could learn about Malcolm X only from reading a textbook. By the time I came out, I still found it hard enough even attempting to finish the essay although it seemed I knew what Malcolm X was like and I got a greater understanding of how he succeeded. He was not a man without his controversies but it’s amazing to see what Spike Lee made of his own life story in here: arguably one of the most important American films of its time, and still a subject worth noting in the present.
Denzel Washington stars as Malcolm X as key events of his own life are put into great detail ranging from Malcolm’s experiences with racism, incarceration, and marriage. Knowing already Spike Lee’s background having directed Do the Right Thing three years prior, a project of this sort would only go for much greater proportions on his own end given the subject matter being approached in Malcolm X. Spike Lee doesn’t cover only the life of Malcolm X while he is indeed keeping a clear focus on the figure in order to capture the feeling of a biopic, it never feels like one – arguably in the best way possible. Rather instead the biopic label almost feels inappropriate for Malcolm X, only towards something greater.
There’s already a hint being left behind upon the opening of the film, it shows an image of an American flag as it burns to form an X. Perhaps it was a hint only at anger towards a system that wanted to conserve what was so hateful and there’s a thought that some of this could still ring important in today’s world. Even if there were an agenda being presented in terms of how Spike Lee decides to show a state of society all around how Malcolm X is seeing the world around him, it still feels inviting all around because of how Lee uses the conventions of a biopic in order to elevate its subject matter. Normally, it would be something that goes against what a film of this sort would aim for but somehow Spike Lee’s handling makes it feel so fitting as it moves around – it feels more open for viewers to access but it never holds back upon itself.
Lee always goes down to the bone about the experiences of Malcolm X within a little over three hours but aside from that it’s amazing how aesthetically perfect such a film is: when we look at the costumes or the framing of certain sequences, even down to the historically accurate portrayal of Malcolm X’s assassination. The whole film feels like history happening right before one’s own eyes as a result, for there’s a feeling it captures almost like that of a documentary. It were something that Spike Lee managed to utilize so perfectly for Do the Right Thing in order to capture a sort of authenticity all around and to see how he keeps up for the first hour or so of Malcolm X always keeps an eye glued, but once it makes that shift, something grabs you even more, and soon a running time nearing three and a half hours feels significantly shorter.
But all of this weight is carried upon Denzel Washington’s performance as Malcolm X. Washington’s performance is a revelation, for not only is it the finest of his career but to see how he builds the character of a figure like Malcolm X all throughout is just breathtaking wherever he is present on the screen. And thanks to Spike Lee’s aesthetic perfection, watching Denzel Washington as he plays Malcolm X is not him acting anymore. He has become Malcolm X in spirit and character and soon the power of such a role only becomes clear. The power of Denzel Washington’s performance is not merely that simple or is it something that hits right at face value, it is arguably one of the finest treatments that an important figure in history would ever received in a dramatization of their own life.
What’s most amazing about Malcolm X comes clear here, it would be in Spike Lee’s commitment to history all throughout. But knowing what more has Spike Lee been able to create within a film like Do the Right Thing it only becomes evident why he was the perfect man to handle such subject matter like this. Spike Lee’s Malcolm X isn’t merely a film only about the trials, achievements, and eventual fate of Malcolm X. It was a film that feels dedicated to showing how influential he was and why he still remains an important figure in American history. And even if a certain agenda were to be presented, the most amazing thing to come out of Malcolm X is that it feels so inviting because it feels just like history. We’re not watching a picture painted in the manner of a saint, we’re watching an ordinary man and his power growing somewhere else. Maybe it was there where Malcolm X hits such a strong note.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Warner Bros.
Directed by Spike Lee
Screenplay by Spike Lee, Arnold Perl, from The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley
Produced by Spike Lee, Marvin Worth
Starring Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman, Jr., Delroy Lindo, Spike Lee
Release Year: 1992
Running Time: 202 minutes