It had been quite some time since I’d seen Spike Lee’s Malcolm X before I fired up my Blu-Ray player to give it a re-watch for this week. I remembered elements—mostly centered around Denzel Washington’s incredibly dynamic performance—but some of the nuts and bolts of the filmmaking had flittered out of my mind.
In the film’s first few moments, I was met with a monologue that said things like:
“Brothers and sisters, I am here to tell you that I charge the white man. I charge the white man with being the greatest murderer on earth. I charge the white man with being the greatest kidnapper on earth. There is no place in this world that this man can go and say he created peace and harmony. Everywhere he's gone, he's created havoc. Everywhere he's gone, he's created destruction. So I charge him.”
And that that moment, I suddenly remembered, “Oh yeah, this film is ON FIRE.”
And then it is—literally. The still image of the American flag that accompanies Washington’s monologue is set ablaze before eventually turning into a smoldering red, white, and blue X.
It’s hard to imagine a more perfect marriage of subject and creator than Lee and the life of X, one of America’s most passionate, thoughtful, and complicated figures in the area of race and race relations. Lee had always dreamed of adapting the man’s autobiography for the big screen, but after decades of development, the film’s producers decided to go with director Norman Jewison, of In the Heat of the Night fame, to tell X’s story on the big screen. It was Jewison who originally tapped Washington to play the title role.
Mounting public pressure for an African-American to be the one to tell this story eventually led to Jewison’s exit. Lee then signed on, but the controversy didn’t exactly subside. Some black activists and artists, including poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, didn’t think Lee was up to the task based on his previous body of work. "Based on the movies I've seen," he said in an interview to Newsweek in 1991, shortly before the film officially began shooting, “I'm horrified of seeing Spike Lee make Malcolm X. I think Eddie Murphy's films are better."
Most of the objections related to questions about what elements of X’s life Lee would focus on—his younger years selling and doing drugs in Harlem as “Detroit Red,” his religious conversion and ministry in the Nation of Islam, or the time after his pilgrimage to Mecca during which he separated from the Nation and preached more about tolerance and acceptance by and for all races and peoples.
The answer, of course, is all of the above. At more than three hours, the film is obviously very long, but it’s hard to envision any of it getting left on the cutting room floor. Each act is compelling in its own right—from the playfulness between X and his friend Shorty [Lee] in act one, to his meteoric rise in act two, to his guarded apparent acceptance of his fate in act three—and together, they add up to one of the best, most thoughtful biopics ever—one that’s certainly worthy of its subject matter and one that’s acted and directed with care and with flair.
In honor of this tremendous film’s 25th anniversary, I’m excited to introduce [or reintroduce] this film to you this week.