**** (out of ****)
Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman Jr., Delroy Lindo.
Directed by Spike Lee. Written by Lee and Arnold Perl, based on the book by Alex Haley and Malcolm X.
Rated R. 203 minutes. 1992.
Like Amadeus and Raging Bull a decade before it, and Ali and The Aviator a decade after, Spike Lee’s galvanizing Malcolm X is one of the great screen biographies (joining Nixon in that categories for a pair from the 1990s), never taking for granted the hero status of its polarizing figure, but examining his psychology and what made the man into the martyr. Superficially, the structure is not uncommon. We see his upbringing, born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, to a father later probably killed by the Ku Klux Klan in a “streetcar accident” and a mother who loses her nerve as swiftly as she loses the ability to support Malcolm and his brothers. He later leads a life of drugs, pimping, gambling, and racketeering, before being imprisoned, partially for cavorting with white women while doing so. In prison and after, he becomes smitten with the teachings of Islam, in particular through the mentoring of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation Islam. Black supremacy, in the guise of black self-reliance, is the subject of the teachings, as Malcolm, who sheds his “slave” surname and replaces it with the letter “x,” learns that all white men are devil spawn. After a pilgrimage to Mecca, he becomes considerably less radically anti-white, though returning the African diaspora from the Americas, Europe, or anywhere else to their mother continent remains his message until his violent assassination, probably by Elijah Muhammad’s henchmen within the Nation of Islam, with which he becomes increasingly disenfranchised over the course of his life. Here is that life, entirely and sprawling, portrayed in just less than three-and-a-half hours by Lee and co-screenwriter Arnold Perl (adapting Malcolm X’s own autobiography, co-written by Alex Haley, presumably after the man’s murder), who earn the gargantuan film’s every minute. We see this man live, breathe, fear, love, hate, doubt, firmly believe, and orate, and in an astonishing performance that ranks among the best in the movies, Denzel Washington captures the spirit, the controversy, and the humanity of this great man. Surrounding him is a superb supporting cast, each of whom I could name, but at the center is Washington’s disappearance into the role of any actor’s lifetime. It’s a performance of great courage in a film of great candor.