Re-Watchterpiece Theater is a series that explores the organic way that attitudes about films change after you watch them a second time, a third time, or more, further down the line than the original viewing. Since Warner Brothers is still sending me free Blu-rays as part of the Blu-ray Elite program, I was recently afforded a chance to re-watch a film that took me back in time to my college years (sort of)- Malcolm X (1992). How had Spike Lee’s deeply personal epic saga of the civil rights icon held up after all these years?
The First Viewing
The film first came out when I was in high school, but I didn’t see it then. My first viewing was early in the spring of 1998, when I was a 21-year old college senior. I had just completed a Civil Rights history course at Westminster College. I learned as much in that course as I had in any other that I took at Westminster. But here’s the rub. The course was so comprehensive that the Nation of Islam, black nationalism, and Malcolm X, were almost a footnote to everything else. They were discussed, of course, but no more so than SNCC, Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King, W.E.B. DuBois (awesome human being), Marcus Garvey, and seemingly a billion other topics. In short, my first viewing of the film was more or less a supplement to the course, even though I’d already completed the course.
I absolutely loved Malcolm X the first time. It spoke directly to the goofy young white liberal inside of me. It even made fun of the young white liberal inside of me, with the Columbia University scene in which Malcolm X (née Little) had told a well-intentioned guilty white liberal that there was nothing she could do to help his cause. Mostly, I saw the film as a road map to check off historical facts that I knew had happened- the death of Malcolm X’s father at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan; the strong rhetoric and the rise of the black power movement; the Johnson Hinton incident outside of the police station; his controversial comments about the JFK assassination; and others. In other words, I didn’t see it so much as a film as I did history, brought to life. And it dovetailed perfectly with what I had learned just a few months prior. When you’re in college, you’re most likely at the peak of your idealism, ambition, and passion for human rights, and that made it the perfect time for me to get an introduction to Spike Lee’s film.
I’m all grown up now. I still think the history is fascinating, and the goofy white liberal in me has never really gone away, but I’m far more interested in the trappings of filmmaking at this point. And thus, my perspective has changed quite a bit. Because of the massive running time- 3 hours and 21 minutes- I hadn’t revisited Malcolm X in 14 years. That fact made the re-watch fresh and new to me. And I still absolutely love this movie.
Lee leaves a trail of breadcrumbs leading directly to at least a few of the influences in his own education, and I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. The opening scene is a bold deconstruction of the memorable blood-and-guts speech in front of the flag in Patton (1970), with George Patton’s patriotic speech replaced with a monologue from Malcolm X, as the flag is consumed to reveal the footage of the Rodney King beating (more on this later). The influence of Martin Scorsese is all over the place, as well. Like Scorsese, Lee’s camera never stops moving. It’s constantly fluid with sharp cuts intended to jar the viewer. And there’s a very direct correlation to the use of the finger-gun in Taxi Driver, which establishes an ominous tone leading to the violence later in the film. Lee employs the same technique, coupled with flashback scenes to the death of Malcolm X’s father, to build a similarly ominous tone. Last but not least, Malcolm X wanted to be a gangster in his early life, and had idolized the classic Hollywood actors who played them- Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, etc… Lee places this in the film as well. In fact, in the deleted scenes introduced by Lee, he mentions that X’s appreciation for gangster films was further established in a scene that was left on the cutting room floor.
The Blu-ray comes with a 1972 documentary about Malcolm X and it works as a tremendous supplement to the film. I watched it beforehand, and it’s amazing to see just how much of the actual dialogue Lee placed into the movie. Part of the brilliance of Malcolm X is that Spike Lee found a way to make Malcolm X human to all audiences- black and white, young and old- by staying as true as possible to the story of Malcolm X. This makes perfect sense. Malcolm X’s life played out like a movie, so it’s no surprise that it would also become a great movie. His 39 years on earth were full of wild and fascinating character arcs- the son of a strong proponent of black nationalism; the miscreant teenager ashamed of his identity; his transformation into a bold icon fighting for justice; his final transformation into a crusader for justice, abandoning the party line of the Nation of Islam to embrace all of the Civil Rights movement; and finally, his death.
There are all sorts of smaller flourishes that Lee imprints into the film to make it transcendent. The use of “the conk” (the hair straightener) as an indicator of the degradation of Malcolm X’s soul is brilliant. The fusion of black and white stock footage with the rest of the film adds an air of realism, making the audience feel like it’s watching a documentary. It’s been done before and since, but it was still fresh at the time and it’s rarely been employed as effectively. The jarring gun shots throughout help give the film a dollop of pacing. And Spike Lee also uses color impressively. The early days of Malcolm X’s life pop with warm, bright colors, before descending into the cold, impervious blues and grays of prison. The attention to detail makes the period piece portion work, and Denzel Washington is nothing short of amazing in channeling an icon.
There are two pieces that leave me conflicted. The first is the use of the Rodney King footage. It dates the film. When making a sweeping epic like this, it’s not good to date your film. That said, it’s helped because it gives the film some context. Malcolm X hadn’t been dead for 40 years and the race issue was still prevalent, if far more subdued, in 1992. And ultimately, the ending- with the kids declaring that they are Malcolm X- felt very stilted and forced to me. It was a bit too much. It’s worth noting that these are only minor quibbles with a film I otherwise hold in very high esteem.
It’s ultimately tough to gauge where it belongs in film history. It didn’t land on either incarnation of the AFI Top 100, and that’s understandable. It also didn’t win- or even receive a nomination for- the Best Picture Oscar. To me, that’s NOT understandable. Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven won that year, and I think Unforgiven is the better of the two films. But you can’t convince me that The Crying Game, A Few Good Men, or for chrissakes Scent of a Woman-all nominees- were better. It’s not even close. You have to wonder if the bold rhetoric that Malcolm X used, that was put on display in the film, didn’t scare away voters and audiences because it was too controversial. Even if there is redemption at the end, even though it’s based on historical fact, and even though Spike Lee went to great pains to explain why Malcolm X was who he was… a lot of people aren’t going to want to align themselves with seeing all white people as “the devil”. Personally, I think it’s a crowning achievement of 1990s cinema, and one of the better films made since the salad days of the 1970s.