The story of Malcolm Little, better known as Malcom X after his conversion to Islam, is a fascinating American tale, one which Spike Lee tells masterfully in his outstanding film based on "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," which was co-written by Alex Haley and released months after Malcolm's assassination.
The film's production is a fascinating story as well. Producer Marvin Worth, who knew Malcolm from the streets of New York when they were teenagers, worked for years to get it made. In 1968, he commissioned author James Baldwin to write a script and screenwriter Arnold Perl, who died in 1971, joined him, but the project languished as no studio wanted to back the story of such an inflammatory and controversial individual. Worth produced the Academy Award-nominated documentary 'Malcolm X,' which was released in 1972 and is included as an extra on the accompanying DVD in this set.
When Warner Brothers finally decided to commit to making the film, Norman Jewison was announced as the director, and though he had made great films dealing with race, such as 'In the Heat of the Night' and 'A Soldier's Story,' there was a public outcry that the job should go to an African American filmmaker. Leading the outcry was Lee, who had wanted to make the film since he was in college. When Jewison stepped down, Lee's dream was closer to becoming a reality and he was hired on. He rewrote the script but then had to deal with the budget. The studio wanted it made for under $30 million, but Lee had loftier ideas, such as wanting to follow Malcolm's journey to Mecca. Channeling Malcolm's early days as a hustler, Lee took Francis Ford Coppola's advice to get "the movie company pregnant" by starting the film and getting done as much as he could until the money ran out and then force the studio to complete it. 'Malcolm X' was shut down during post-production and Lee was told it could be no longer than two hours and 15 minutes. Lee gave back $2 million of his salary and went to people like Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Oprah Winfrey, for donations that earned him a final cut with the studio that came in at over three hours.
Lee embraces Malcolm's controversial, in-your-face approach in dealing with racism by having the film open with footage of the Rodney King beating intercut with an American flag burning down into the shape of an X while Denzel Washington speaks off camera as Malcolm. It's powerful imagery to be sure, but can turn off audience members who don’t see that incident solely as a racial one.
We are introduced to Malcolm Little, living in Boston during WWII. He has the concerns of many a young man. He wants to look good, make easy money, and spend time with the ladies. He has his hair straightened and wears loud, colorful zoot suits. He becomes a criminal and ends up in prison where he meets Baines (Albert Hall), who teaches Malcolm about the Nation of Islam and its leader Elijah Muhammad (Albert Freeman Jr.). Malcolm undergoes a conversion. When released from prison, he joins the Nation of Islam and takes X as his last name since that is the mathematical symbol for something unknown, which is what his real last name is since Little is a slave name.
Malcolm X is a charismatic figure and the fiery rhetoric he uses to spread of the word of Elijah Muhammad strikes a chord with African Americans who are lacking their civil rights during the late '50s and early '60s. He also concerns whites, all of whom he labels as devils. His hatred for whites comes easy, and is understandable for the viewer. Revealed through many flashbacks, the despicable treatment he and his family experienced at the hands of white people is shown, from the KKK murdering his father, to his eighth-grade teacher dissuading young Malcolm, who was a very good student, from being a lawyer by saying it is not a realistic goal.
Malcolm X rejects the pacifism of Martin Luther King and others whom he calls Uncle Toms among other terms. His celebrity makes other leaders within the NOI jealous and they begin to work against him. Malcolm X becomes disillusioned with the NOI as they are of him. He decides to start his own mosque, but first travels to Mecca, where he has another transformative experience. Using a second unit comprised of a Muslim crew, Lee gained permission for them to shoot within the holy city to create an impressive sequence.
Malcolm returns with a new outlook and with the new name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. He no longer hates all whites and wants to work with other civil rights leaders. Unfortunately, his enemies within the NOI retained their outlook and plot against him, which he becomes aware of. Malcolm's life ended on February 21, 1965, and even if a viewer didn't know that before going in, Lee uses gunshots at different points throughout the soundtrack to foreshadow Malcolm's death.
Denzel Washington gives an excellent performance. He is able to present Malcolm at different stages in his life, and does a great job capturing the cadence of Malcolm's speech. Washington was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost to Al Pacino for 'Scent of a Woman.' Ernest Dickerson's cinematography is gorgeous and he uses different lighting styles with different time periods. Alongside 'Do The Right Thing,' this is Spike Lee's finest work as a director. He, Ernest, and the film deserved to be recognized for the excellence achieved.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Brothers presents 'Malcolm X' on a 50G Region Free Blu-ray disc housed in a 40-page book that also hold a DVD containing the aforementioned documentary. The disc loads up straight to the menu.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.85:1.
The film is filled with well-saturated colors that are bright and bold. The zoot suits Malcolm and others wear pop off the screen and later in the film the golden brown sands of Egypt are warm. Blacks are rich, including when black and white film was used to recreate news footage. There is strong contrast throughout. Because of aesthetic choices, some scenes weren't shot with a lot of light, limiting the shadow delineation on occasion.
The early days in Boston are shot with a softness to create a sense of its intended age. Dickerson spoke of shooting through stretched out panty hose. As time passes, objects become sharper and depth is more pronounced. Most, if not all, of the light sources within a shot are diffused. A light grain can be seen that becomes more evident during archival and faux archival footage.
Very good details are on display during the film. The fine marking on bullets can be seen when focused on in the foreground as Malcolm prepares to play Russian Roulette with Rudy. Even better is when Baines shows Malcolm the dictionary. A micro close-up of the pages reveal the pulp material they are comprised of. I didn't notice any digital artifacts
The Blu-ray's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track delivers a good listening experience that is free of defects.
The film is dialogue heavy and the voices are always clear and understandable. Terence Blanchard's wonderful score is the best measure for how dynamic the track is. There's not a lot for the subwoofer to do aside from delivering the bass of the score and the adding weight to the gunshots. All the elements are balanced well.
The surrounds present occasional ambiance, such as crowds within scenes. Another good example is when Malcolm and Sophia (Kate Vernon) are beachside, crickets and ocean waves can be heard. Objects are positioned within soundfield to A train can be heard passing across the front channels. When Malcolm X is first preaching on the street, the camera pans 360 degrees showing other preachers. The voices move around system in relation to where they would be in relation to the camera.
I highly recommend Spike Lee's 'Malcolm X' because it's an important film in terms of the historical significance of its subject matter and because of the sheer talent displayed by the cast and crew. The Blu-ray offers a very pleasing high-definition experience with extras that help to tell the story of Malcolm X and detail the making of the film.