Malcolm X is Flawed but Great — Denzel Washington Week!
Washington’s best role? Well no, but…
Denzel Washington is my favourite actor. He stars in the film The Little Things that is coming out later this week, which I will definitely be reviewing. In honour of that, I have christened this week–for 2021 only–“Denzel Washington Week”. To celebrate I have taken the liberty of watching a few of his movies that I haven’t actually seen before. These aren’t technically reviews since they won’t have a final score–these articles are only meant to be commentary. Today we are talking about the Spike Lee classic Malcolm X.
I have a conflicted relationship with Spike Lee, but it’s also one built on unintentional ignorance. You see, as of writing this I have only actually watched four of his movies–this, Inside Man, BlacKkKlansman and Da 5 Bloods–and my experience with them has covered most of the reception spectrum. I enjoyed Inside Man a fair bit, thought BlacKkKlansman was pretty good but flawed and disliked Da 5 Bloods. Malcolm X is easily the best movie of his that I’ve seen so far, but it too has some glaring issues that I just can’t get past.
I intend to watch more of his movies as time goes on because at the very least Lee is an original voice, but you have to take my opinion on his filmography with a grain of salt because, like I said, it’s very incomplete. With that said, I turn to you–my dear, precious, sweet, handsome, pretty readers (I’m sucking up)–to educate me in the comments below if anything I say about him is wildly off base.
With the exception of Inside Man, his flicks occupy an uneasy position where I can witness genius and kinetic energy in one scene while being subjected to what can only be described as amateur pitfalls in the next. Malcom X falls victim to this too.
There are moments where it seems to embrace soap opera shlock unintentionally, which is made worse by awkward insertions and transitions that shatter the flow. On top of that, there’s some extremely hokey dialogue that drowns any of the sentiment that Lee was attempting to convey.
My, I pick real flattering screenshots.
For example, there’s a heartbreaking flashback where Malcolm’s family are casualties of a heinous, racially driven crime. It’s mostly effective but then he has the father yell “I’m a man!” out of the blue. Well, it’s not out of the blue because he’s trying to declare that he’s a man, despite the racism he faces because he’s black. I get it, but it’s a time where Lee’s trademark heavy-handedness–which is sometimes a feature, not a criticism, though it’s a criticism here–makes the movie suffer. To make matters worse, he revisits just that moment later on and slices it in abruptly. Again, the purpose of it when he returns to it is, assumedly, to draw comparisons between Malcolm’s father and himself. But it’s laughable, no other way to say it.
That doesn’t mean I hate Malcolm X, not by a long shot. In fact, I consider it a great movie. When you ignore what I said above then you can focus on what’s important: Denzel Washington’s performance and Lee’s gentle hand in giving this man a fair examination.
Malcolm X was a truly enigmatic figure–there’s no denying that. But Lee makes the case that his earlier career as a public intellectual/activist fogs up what he later became. He says that it’s impossible for some people to forget the black supremacy of some of his earlier work even when he moved on from that and started to become more like his contemporary, Martin Luther King Jr. I’m no scholar on either man but for what it’s worth, the film does a good job of arguing both sides while giving us a balanced viewpoint.
Then we got Denzel who is masterful here. He’s menacing, sympathetic, intelligent, intense, compassionate and a little scary. Is this his best role? Some might say it is, but I’m a Training Day guy myself. Either way, trying to decide what Washington role is the most accomplished is a dilemma worth having. Honestly, my undying love for him and his talent inevitably helped me ignore some of the apparent Leeisms that threatened to take me out of the film entirely sporadically.
It never should have taken me this long to watch Malcolm X–a three-and-a-half-hour runtime is a tall ask when your time is limited–but I’m glad I finally sat down and knocked this one out, warts and all.
He is the Malcolm X of bunnies. Or something.