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'Malcolm X' at 30

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Courtesy the Criterion Collection
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Denzel Washington as Malcolm X, Malik el-Shabazz, in Spike Lee's 'Malcolm X.'

Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” is one of the great films of the 1990s, a brilliant portrait of the slain civil rights leader that hurtles forward throughout its three hour-plus runtime, anchored by the Oscar-nominated performance of a lifetime—Denzel Washington in the title role.

The film was a long time coming, almost since the publication of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” by Alex Haley in October, 1965. Producer Marvin Worth had purchased the film rights to the book, and commissioned James Baldwin and Arnold Perl to write a screenplay. Although that film was never made, their work became foundational material. Perl would go on to direct an Oscar-nominated documentary about “Malcolm X,” and Worth continued fighting for the feature film to be made, meanwhile producing “Lenny,” “The Rose,” and “Patty Hearst.”

Stars like Eddie Murphy or Richard Pryor came and went. Warner Bros. finally greenlighted the movie after director Norman Jewison became attached to the project.

Meanwhile, Spike Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson had been dreaming about working on the “Malcolm X” film since they were student filmmakers at NYU. With the success of “Do the Right Thing,” Lee made sure the press knew he was interested in “Malcolm X,” and that it should be helmed by a Black director.

Jewison, a sensitive director whose resume included the civil rights drama “In the Heat of the Night,” as well as a previous picture with Denzel Washington, “A Soldier’s Story,” bowed out gracefully, and Lee set about rewriting the script, which would eventually carry his name as well as Arnold Perl’s as co-writers.

Warner Bros. gave Lee his largest budget to date—but not large enough. This was going to be an epic film. “Over four hours,” he warned the studio only half-jokingly. Warner Bros. brought a bond company in to insure the film’s production. Lee countered by taking advice from Francis Ford Coppola, shooting enough of the movie to “get the movie company pregnant,” hoping Warner Bros. would rather cough up the extra money than go into a protracted shutdown of the film over budget disputes. But the bond company called the bet, and during post-production, “Malcolm X” was shut down.

Lee got on the phone, calling upon several prominent Black Americans, including Oprah Winfrey, Prince, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, Tracy Chapman, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. They all contributed money to the production of “Malcolm X.” Lee told the New York Times, "This is not a loan. They are not investing in the film. These are Black folks with some money who came to the rescue of the movie. As a result, this film will be my version. Not the bond company's version, not Warner Brothers'. I will do the film the way it ought to be.” Which was the right thing to do.

The final film runs three hours and 21 minutes, and follows Malcolm Little from his days running numbers on the streets, to his conversion to Islam in jail, and then his rise to fame as an outspoken leader of the civil rights movement, and finally to a worldly figure before his tragic assassination in 1965. It delivers a fuller picture of a man that many Americans – especially white Americans – had only known through sound bites.

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West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo) counsels Malcolm, as Detroit Red (Denzel Washington), in 'Malcolm X.'

Denzel Washington delivers a towering performance as Malcolm X. He had actually played the part before, in 1981—on stage in a one-act play called “When the Chickens Came Home to Roost,” about tensions between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. The New York Times praised his “firm, likable” performance in that play. He was Lee’s first choice for the film role, and Washington was ready. “I still had the glasses,” Washington later joked to critic Leonard Maltin.

In the film, Washington broadens the scope beyond the one setting of that earlier play, and is required the take Malcolm from his 20s to age 39. As you watch the film, notice the way he changes his voice and manner from hustling street slang to the precise discipline of a leader, and even code-switching as Malcolm X by speaking with different rhythms to a largely white group of university students, the Black neighborhood community, Nation of Islam members, or his old pal Shorty (Spike Lee). On this most recent watch, I was also moved by the way Washington instinctively stoops his body as a sign of respect in the presence of Elijah Muhammad as he meets the Nation of Islam leader for the first time. Or more subtly, the facial expressions that indicate Malcolm knows what is coming next, even when it seems to be the unexpected. The physicality of Washington’s performance is remarkable. How he did not win the Oscar is beyond me.

Bolstering the film is a brilliant sound track full of source cues like Duke Ellington’s “Arabesque Cookie,” accompanying Malcolm's pilgrimage to Mecca, or Lionel Hampton’s “Flying Home,” played as Malcolm and Shorty live it up at a Boston club, allowing Lee to showcase a rarely seen gift for staging dance sequences. But musically it is Terence Blanchard’s urgent score (his first!) that moves me the most. Lee told Blanchard to go big, and the opening credits are a mournful cry of pain and pride, as Blanchard’s trumpet wails over solo cello line, brassy chords, a wordless chorus, and a heart-beating bass drum. Criterion’s new Blu-ray of “Malcolm X” includes a terrific interview with Blanchard where he shares that the trumpet represents Malcolm, while the counterpoint cello is Blanchard’s own response to Malcolm’s words, spoken by Washington over the opening credits.

It’s during that opening title sequence that one of the most striking images in the film fills the screen. As an American flag burns into the shape of the letter X, the image is intercut with grainy footage of a man being beaten. The Rodney King tape, and the riots that followed the acquittal of the cops that beat him, were still fresh in the minds of Americans when “Malcolm X” was released in the fall of 1992.

I was reminded of this scene while watching Lee’s film “BlacKkKlansman” in 2018, which concludes with a similarly emotional music cue by Blanchard, and footage of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, as well as the murder of counter-protestor Heather Heyer.

Lee told the Baltimore Sun in 1992, “Anybody who sees the opening credit sequence will have no trouble interpreting what the juxtaposition [of 1960s and more recent events] is saying: that this [story] is something we're not fabricating. It's not Hollywood, this ain't Walt Disney. This is about the present state of race relations in the world."

Still true today.

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Courtesy the Criterion Collection
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Malcolm X (Denzel Washington) speaks on behalf of the Nation of Islam in 'Malcolm X.'

BONUS: DENZEL ON CRITERION

This has been the year for Denzel Washington and Criterion Collection fans. In addition to “Malcolm X” arriving on 4K Blu-ray, two hidden gems, “Devil in a Blue Dress,” and “Mississippi Masala,” were also released by Criterion earlier in 2022.

In the former movie, released in 1995, Washington stars as Easy Rawlins, a Tex-patriate in 1940s Los Angeles out of a job who stumbles into detective work after he’s asked to track down a missing woman, the lover of a mayoral candidate. The job leads him down a dangerous path, and he calls in his friend Mouse for help. Mouse has a questionable rep, but he's the type who gets the job done, even when you're not expecting him to, such as when Rawlins looks on incredulously as Mouse explains matter-of-factly following a handy dispatching, "If you didn't want me to kill him, why did you leave me alone with him?” (Cheadle steals just about every scene he's in.)

You’d think a detective would be a perfect fit for Washington’s charming side, but this is Easy Rawlins’ first rodeo. Instead of smiling his way into the backrooms, the determined gumshoe emerges almost by force as Rawlins persists, diving deeper into a case that leads him into the highest levels of local politics where not even wealth and power can bridge the color line. Finally I liked that "Devil in a Blue Dress," the movie, made me want to read the novel by author Walter Mosley, and its many sequels.

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Courtesy the Criterion Collection
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Don Cheadle and Denzel Washington in 'Devil in a Blue Dress.'

Denzel Washington also stars in “Mississippi Masala,” directed by Mira Nair. Long out of circulation, it was released by the Criterion Collection back in May. The film follows the story of Mina (Sarita Choudhury), whose family is forced to leave Uganda in the 1970s for life in the United States. Grown up but still living with her parents in Mississippi, she meets repairman Demetrius (Washington), and the two fall in love, facing resistance from their respective families and communities. The movie in 1991 opened a window to race relations within the Indian and Black communities that few had seen, and it did so while maintaining a lightness and sweetness between the leads... and one of the sexiest phone calls I’ve ever seen on screen.

Nathan has been with TPR since 1995, when he began working on classical music station KPAC 88.3 FM, as host of “Tuesday Night at the Opera.” He soon learned the ropes on KSTX 89.1 FM, and volunteered to work practically any shift that came his way, on either station. He worked in nearly every capacity on the radio before moving into Community Engagement, Marketing, and Digital Media. His reporting and criticism has been honored by the Houston Press Club and Texas Associated Press.