Malcolm X (4K UHD)

Director: Spike Lee
Screenplay: Arnold Perl & Spike Lee (based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley)
Stars: Denzel Washington (Malcolm X), Angela Bassett (Betty Shabazz), Albert Hall (Baines), Al Freeman Jr. (Elijah Muhammad), Delroy Lindo (West Indian Archie), Spike Lee (Shorty), Theresa Randle (Laura), Kate Vernon (Sophia), Lonette McKee (Louise Little), Tommy Hollis (Earl Little), James McDaniel (Brother Earl), Ernest Thomas (Sidney)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 1992
Country: U.S.
Malcolm X Criterion Collection 4K UHD
Malcolm X

The opening credits of Spike Lee’s epic biopic Malcolm X are instructive in the way they promise a film that he ultimately doesn’t quite deliver. The initial credits fade in and out against a stark black backdrop as we hear a voice introducing Malcolm X to a boisterous crowd who is eager to hear his words. “Are we going to bring him on?” the speakers asks rhetorically, and then answers, “Yes, we’re going to bring him on!” As the applause swells on the soundtrack, the screen is suddenly filled with a giant American flag and Terence Blanchard’s epic horn- and drum- and choral-filled score begins pounding in the speakers as the film’s title fades in, creating an immediate and stark contrast between the name of the controversial civil rights leader at the heart of the film and the symbol of the country he saw as one history’s greatest oppressive forces.

But, Lee isn’t done. As the credits continue, we begin to hear Denzel-Washington-as-Malcolm-X fiercely orating a series of charges against “the white man,” including being “the greatest murderer on earth,” “the greatest kidnapper on earth,” and “the greatest robber and enslaver on this earth.” At this point, Lee begins cutting in bits of grainy video footage of Rodney King being beaten on the ground by Los Angeles police officers, a still exceedingly raw wound in America’s racial history, especially at the time of the film’s release. And then the flag begins to burn, first from the edges and then near the middle, eventually burning down into an enormous X.

This opening credits sequences takes less than three minutes, but it packs so much incendiary visual and auditory and ideological power that you can’t help but feel that the remaining three-plus hours will be a literally overwhelming experience. And, at times, it is. But, what is most curious about Malcolm X is how fundamentally conventional it is. Its subject is radical and unconventional and at times contradictory and difficult, but the form in which Lee chose to tell Malcolm X’s story fits right into all the conventions of the Hollywood biopic.

It didn’t necessarily have to be that way. James Baldwin had been hired by producer Marvin Worth back in 1968 to write a screenplay based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley, but the three disjointed, French New Wave-esque drafts he wrote were constantly revised into something more traditionally palatable, and he eventually abandoned the project (his screenplay was eventually published in 1972 as One Day, When I Was Lost). One of those scripts was written along with Arnold Perl, who later wrote the Oscar-nominated 1972 documentary Malcolm X. Lee then added to Perl’s revision of Baldwin’s original script, although only he and Perl were credited in the end because Baldwin’s estate asked that his name be removed since the final product differed so substantially from what he had originally written.

The film opens in Boston in the mid-1940s, were we first meet Malcolm X as Malcolm Little (Denzel Washington), a swinging youth who favors bright zoot suits, straightened hair, and white women. He and his best friend Shorty (Spike Lee) end up connected with a local mobster, “West Indian” Archie (Delroy Lindo). Malcolm is rechristened for the first (but not the last) time as “Detroit Red,” and he and Shorty successfully run numbers and other scams until they are busted for burglary and wind up in prison. It is there that Malcolm meets Baines (Albert Hall), a fellow inmate who introduces him to the rigorous teachings of the Nation of Islam (Baines is a convenient fictional character through which Malcolm’s transformation from petty hood to devout religious leader can be dramatized). When Malcom is paroled in the early 1950s, he travels to Chicago and meets Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.), who renames him Malcolm X and eventually elevates him to major status as spokesman within the Nation of Islam, where he preaches a fiery brand of black nationalism and racial separation that makes him a lightning rod for the intertwined powder kegs of race, religion, and ideology. It is during this time that he meets his wife, a nurse named Betty (Angela Bassett), and he later falls out of favor with Elijah Muhammad, who Malcolm discovers has fathered numerous children out of wedlock and against the teachings of Islam. Breaking from the Nation, he journeys to Mecca where he meets Muslims of different colors and nationalities, which leads to his changing views on both race and religion.

As he appears in virtually every scene in the film, Denzel Washington is central to its success, as he not only creates a believable and moving screen version of Malcolm, right down to the clipped delivery of his oratory and sharp physical movements, but also embodies the intensity and passion of Malcolm’s beliefs, which conflicted with both dominant white American culture and black integrationists who saw the future of the country as the proverbial melting pot while Malcolm preached separation of the races (Washington had previously played Malcom on-stage in Laurence Holder’s 1981 play When the Chickens Come Home to Roost). It is that Malcolm who is highlighted in the film’s opening credits, but what makes the film work is that Lee is most interested in the journey Malcolm took and the way in which his views shifted and evolved. As co-writer and director, Lee is largely reverential to Malcolm the historical figure, highlighting his fervent beliefs and unwavering commitment to integrity within those beliefs, although he also allows room for Malcolm the human being to reflect on his earlier rhetoric, especially in light of his ecumenical turn.

Given Malcolm X’s complex and contentious place in American political history, it is not surprising that there was no end of controversy about Lee’s film. Lee had already proved his willingness to tackle racial issues head-on within the context of Hollywood cinema, particularly in his masterful drama Do the Right Thing (1989), which was interpreted as a both a call to understanding and a call to arms. As Lee put it during an interview at the Cannes Film Festival, “It isn’t the job of movie makers to offer solutions. All we can do is to present the problems.” Malcolm X does exactly that in dramatizing racism in America, which Malcolm approaches differently at different points in his life (denying his race as a young man, preaching racial separation at the height of his power within the Nation of Islam, and finally looking for middle ground), which naturally led to all manner of controversy because so many factions wanted Malcolm X to reflect “their” Malcolm X (for his part, Lee took full responsibility for the film and its portrayal, saying that “this is the Malcolm I see” and writing an entire book about the film’s production). While such contention is inevitable with any biopic, it is especially pertinent here given the heightened focus on race in American in the early 1990s, the historical proximity of the events it depicted (it had been only 25 years since Malcolm’s assassination), and the fact that no one had attempted to make a non-documentary feature film about Malcolm X. Lee was criticized significantly by factions of the black community, particularly by poet and critic Amiri Baraka, creator of the group United Front to Preserve the Legacy of Malcolm X.

Lee persisted, bringing his own artistic personality to bear on the film for better and for worse. Those who find much to celebrate in the film rightly recognize the scope and the depth that Lee was able to achieve. His insistence that Warner Bros. give him a cinematic canvas stretching well beyond the three-hour mark was essential to telling Malcolm’s story, even as it still necessitated certain elisions, condensations, and artistic license. Lee was clearly influenced by Oliver Stone’s radical montage approach to history in JFK (1991), although he uses such intercutting sparingly. Washington’s commanding central performance and the intensity with which the story is told make the film feel both brisk and invigorating, challenging our notions of history and what it means to be black in America, then and now. The film’s detractors have their points as well, and I will concede that some of Lee’s artistic flourishes come to the film’s detriment, particularly an absurdly enlarged moon in a flashback to a Ku Klux Klan attack on Malcolm’s house when he was a child and Malcolm’s borderline-silly vision of Elijah Muhammad in his prison cell. There are times when you wish that Lee would inject himself a little less, but it is still difficult to deny the weight of his achievement.

Malcolm X Criterion Collection 4K UHD + Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
Audio
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary from 2005 by director Spike Lee, Dickerson, editor Barry Alexander Brown, and costume designer Ruth E. Carter
  • New conversation between Lee and journalist and screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper
  • New interviews with actor Delroy Lindo and composer Terence Blanchard
  • Program about the making of the film, featuring Lee, Dickerson, Brown, Blanchard, Carter, filmmaker Martin Scorsese, actor Ossie Davis, Reverend Al Sharpton, former Warner Bros. executive Lucy Fisher, producers Preston Holmes and Jon Kilik, production designer Wynn Thomas, casting director Robi Reed, and Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz
  • Malcolm X (1972), a feature-length documentary produced by Marvin Worth and Arnold Perl and directed by Perl, narrated by actor James Earl Jones
  • Deleted scenes with introductions by Lee
  • Trailer
  • Essay by Cooper, excerpts from Lee’s 1992 book By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of “Malcolm X” . . ., and Davis’s eulogy for Malcolm X
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateNovember 22, 2022

    COMMENTS
    Criterion’s 4K UHD of Malcolm X, which features Dolby Vision HDR, gives us a new restoration that started with a 4K, 16-bit scan of the original camera negative under the supervision of cinematographer Ernest Dickerson. The resulting image is a substantial improvement over Warners’ previously available Blu-ray in terms of detail, depth, texture, and color. Everything looks better, sharper, and more cinematic. Especially with the high dynamic range in play, the colors really pop, especially those early scenes in the 1940s that highlight various gaudy, primary colors, seen best in Shorty’s bright red zoot suit. Other parts of the film are notably dark and low contrast, especially the scenes in Malcolm’s prison cell, and the transfer does a fine jobe with the black levels and shadow detail. The image looks fantastic throughout, which emphasizes the epic scope of the film and the wide range of historical eras and locations it depicts (including Mecca). Criterion dedicated an entire disc to just the film, ensuring maximum bitrate. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel soundtrack was remastered from the 35mm magnetic track and sounds first-rate. The surround channels are frequently employed for both immersive environmental sounds on crowded city streets or packed interiors and to add scope and weight to Terence Blanchard’s majestic orchestral score.

    With the exception of the audio commentary, which was originally recorded in 2005 by Spike Lee, Dickerson, editor Barry Alexander Brown, and costume designer Ruth E. Carter, all of the supplements are housed on two additional Blu-ray discs. We have a newly recorded 26-minute conversation between Lee and journalist and screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper; a 15-minute video interview with actor Delroy Lindo; and a 20-minute video discussion between Lee and composer Terence Blanchard. Some of the other supplements have been repurposed from the 2012 Warner Bros. Blu-ray, including a making-of program that features interviews with Lee, Dickerson, Brown, Blanchard, Carter, producers Preston Holmes and Jon Kilik, casting director Robi Reed, production designer Wynn Thomas, director Martin Scorsese, actor Ossie Davis, Reverend Al Sharpton, former Warner Bros. executive Lucy Fisher, and Malcolm X’s daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz. Also included is Arnold Perl’s Oscar-nominated feature documentary Malcolm X: His Own Story As It Really Happened (1972), which, like Lee’s film, was based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X; a trailer; and nine deleted scenes that are introduced by Lee. The insert booklet includes a bew essay by Cooper, excerpts from Lee’s 1992 book By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X, and Ossie Davis’s eulogy for Malcolm X

    Copyright © 2022 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criteron Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)




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