At a time when various movements are taking place against systemic racism in the US, Academy Award-winning writer and director Spike Lee has released a new film — Da 5 Bloods. The movie seeks to place African-Americans who fought for their country during the Vietnam War in the spotlight. Lee has famously addressed the issues that African-Americans face and have faced in the past during various interviews and, of course, through cinema (She’s Gotta Have It, Jungle Fever, Do the Right Thing, Chi-Raq, and the more recent, BlacKkKlansman). So it doesn’t come as a surprise that this man chose to make a biopic on the controversial African-American activist Malcolm X in the early 90s.
Released in 1992 and starring the immensely talented Denzel Washington in the titular role, Malcolm X as a piece of art has always been relevant. Be it in terms of storytelling, filmmaking or the issues that it concerned itself with. During this period of reckoning and high tension around the globe, it seems imperative to revisit this Spike Lee classic.
Staggering in its brilliance and the amount of time it takes to complete its full run (the movie is almost 3.5 hours long), Malcolm X is a satisfying watch that wants all of your attention. From Malcolm Little’s (as he was earlier known) difficult childhood where he dealt in drugs and thievery to his prison sentence, the movie successfully shows us how Malcolm Little became Malcolm X. Malcolm was not always an activist, he did not have that luxury. He was moved from one foster home to the other, all of which told him in explicit terms that he was ‘different’ and someone not worthy of the love and respect a normal human being deserved. For instance, there is a scene where a very young Malcolm is told by his teacher not to harbour the desire of becoming a lawyer. When he questions his teacher and states defiantly that he has better grades than most in his class, the latter tells him that Malcolm would be better suited to the profession of carpentry as he is “good with his hands.” The teacher also goes on to add that carpentry is a perfectly fine job for the coloured. Lee pieces together sequences like these to build Malcolm X’s defence case, showing us that he was time and again tested for being Black. For his colour.
However, before the tension escalate, we see a younger, happier Malcolm, who just wants his hair straightened ‘like a white man’ in order to impress a few girls. It is at one of these dances that he meets a white woman called Sophia who he takes as a lover. But Spike Lee shows that even when they are together, Malcolm is not at ease. At one point in the movie, he asks her to kiss his feet and serve him food. Sophia happily does so, which prompts Malcolm to ask her when she “will holler for rape.” Later, when he is sentenced for ten years along with a few friends for breaking and entering a house, he simply sniggers when the judge announces the statement. Because Sophia, who was with him and was accused of the same crime, was sentenced only for two years. Malcolm muses that his main punishment was for ‘sleeping with a white girl.’ It is through these small but significant windows of revelation we get an idea of what the filmmaker is trying to say.
Hollywood Rewind: Stardust | Red Eye | Notting Hill | Fargo | The Virgin Suicides | The Breakfast Club | Enchanted | Walk the Line | Blood Diamond | Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban | Mortal Kombat | Bridges of Madison County | Edward Scissorhands | Breakfast at Tiffany’s | She’s Gotta Have It | Ever After | The Devil Wears Prada | The Matrix | Creed | Mulan | Ratatouille | Shutter Island | Her | Dead Poets Society | Sleepless in Seattle | Waitress | Pride and Prejudice | The Dark Knight | Before Sunset | School of Rock | About a Boy | A Few Good Men | 50/50 | Begin Again | Brooklyn | Drive | Chocolat | Batman Begins | 10 Things I Hate About You | The Departed | Freedom Writers | Pretty Woman | Dan in Real Life | Jurassic Park | Tangled | Meet Joe Black | Monster’s Ball | Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind | You’ve Got Mail | Half Nelson | Fight Club | Doubt | American Psycho | Julie and Julia | Forrest Gump | The Silence of the Lambs | Finding Neverland | Roman Holiday| American History X | Tropic Thunder | Before Sunrise | Scent of a Woman | Finding Forrester | Sixteen Candles
The transformative time that Malcolm X spends in the prison are some of the best moments of the film, because of the narrative’s clarity and of course, the stupendous acting by Denzel. Quiet, firm, cocky, violent, curious — all these aspects of Malcolm’s personality are explored fully within a relatively short time frame. It is during his sentence that Malcolm X gets his first introduction to the Nation of Islam (an organisation that stands for the spiritual, social and economic upliftment of African-Americans. However, critics have slammed it previously for its alleged promotion of Black supremacy). It is also during his imprisonment that Malcolm unlearns the popular teachings of Christianity and denounces the whites’ understanding of Jesus as a “god with blue eyes and blond hair.”
My only complaint with the movie is its length. While I understand that a biopic made on such an epic scale would take time to reach its conclusion, Malcolm X could have done without the extra 30 minutes. In fact, had Lee done so, the film would have been punchier, in my humble opinion.
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