Sunday, July 4, 2021

Straight Talker

Malcolm X (1992) - Lee *35mm screening at MoMA 7/2/21 Malcolm X Revisiting after its initial release, I can safely say that Spike Lee's Malcolm X towers over other American biopics in its scale and artistry. The only other American epic biopic that comes close in its greatness is Warren Beatty's Reds. Watching Malcolm X, you can really feel that Lee really gave his all. And Denzel Washington's embodyment of the reformed preacher of Islam has no equal in terms of acting. Tracing from his childhood in Nebraska and tragic death of his father and his mother's ill fate to a small time hustler and a pimp to finding god in prison and becoming one of the most controversial political figures in American history, Malcolm X is a true epic and American story that resonates today as much as the film's release almost thirty years ago.

Malcolm X was a straight shooter. He had an uncanny ability to speak clearly about inequality stemming from 400 years of "White Devilery". The Nation of Islam gave him the paths to self-respect - and he preached it to fellow black brothers and sisters. He spoke the truth without mincing his words. This made him many enemies. As his notoriety grew, he was made enemies of the Nation of Islam itself.

The power of X's speeches delievered with such finesse by Washington is the main draw here. His firey Black Nationalist rhetoric might have been too harsh in criticizing the powers that be, but you can't ignore the stings of truth in his words- there is no one scarier than a principled man.

Another highlight is Malcolm X's pilgrimage to Mecca sequences. Visually sumptuous and emotionally impactful, X's spiritual journey and awakening of international brotherhood is captured beautifully and culminates to the interior of Great Mosque in Mecca where Malcolm sits and prays.

Lee's team's craftmanship is at their best here- shot transitions are extremely inventive and Ernest Dickerson's accompanying cinematography and tonal changes as the film goes along - from glitzy, dreamy look in the beginning to more somber and controlled after X found god, has never been better since or previously in any other Lee films. Terence Blanchard's score is subdued and doesn't try to fight with the visuals. Along with Washington's monumental performance, supporting characters, from Angela Bassett as Betty Shabazz, Al Freeman Jr as Elijah Mohammad, Albert Hall as Baines to Delroy Lindo as Archie are all fantastic.

You don't feel its 3 hour running time. Malcolm X is a solid narrative film that captures your attention, I think, ESPECIALLY today in the BLM era. I didn't remember this. But the film starts with the infamous video of Rodney King beating which led to the LA Riots the same year as the film's release. It is truly sad that after 30 years, nothing much has changed and systematic racism is still very much predominent discourse in America. Malcolm X should be a required viewing for everyone, along with Raoul Peck's HBO mini series Exterminate All the Brutes in understanding systematic racism in this country.

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