Oscar Blindspots: Malcolm X

It might be 30 years late, but I’ll be catching up on all the Oscar nominees and winners I have missed from the year 1992 through the month of September

Epic in scope and featuring one of the best acting performances ever put to film, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X is a fitting ode to the life and legacy of the civil rights icon.

Denzel Washington stars as the titular character, though he begins his life as Malcolm Little. Living in Harlem, he dates a white woman and lives the life of a hustler with his best friend Shorty (Spike Lee) under the eye of “West Indian” Archie (Delroy Lindo). Following a dispute over money, Malcolm returns to his hometown of Boston where he and Shorty begin performing robberies to earn money.

Malcolm is eventually arrested and sentenced to 8-10 years in jail. While incarcerated, Malcolm meets Baines (Albert Hall), a member of the Nation of Islam, who directs him to the teachings of the group’s leader Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.). Committing fully to Islam and its way of life, Malcolm is paroled after six years, where he officially joins the Nation of Islam in Chicago and adopts the name Malcolm X.

For the remainder of his life, Malcolm preaches the Nation’s message, which gains him notoriety and infamy. He marries a nurse named Betty (Angela Bassett) and continues to grow as a speaker and leader. Conflicts arise between authorities as well as in-fighting between the Nation of Islam and Malcolm.

The first hour of the film, Malcolm wants to integrate into the world that despises him. He straightens his hair and dates white women. Once he meets Baines, he realizes how much he has been stifling his own identity. Instead of denying his blackness and attempting to fit into a world that doesn’t want him, he is adamantly black. His identity is affirmed and he can begin to change lives.

Malcolm’s clashes with the Nation of Islam show a disconnect between idealism and human nature. Malcolm’s beliefs transcend what the leaders of the Nation are willing to commit to. When those beliefs clash with the reality, Malcolm is torn between the organization who brought him to prominence and his ideals. This leads him to make a pilgrimage to Mecca in one of the film’s most dynamic sequences. The journey reaffirms his place between an organization made up of men and a faith that fills his soul.

Washington is nothing short of mesmerizing. He depicts Malcolm from the age of 17 all the way through his death at age 39. He evolves from a naïve kid looking for an easy score, to a streetwise hustler, to a reformed man, to a righteous leader, and eventually to an exasperated misanthrope. Despite the change, there is a steady through line where you can see the character’s consistencies. The actor chooses to insulate his frustrations once his conversion to Islam is complete. That anger is still there, but it is masked by a steady quiet and reservation. It’s a towering performance of the highest regard.

There are no weak links among the rest of the cast. Lee gives the first hour of the film an uneasy energy, while Lindo provides the necessary danger. Freeman and Hall give the middle hour its righteous dignity, while Bassett provides the heart. A number of cameos from Ozzie Davis, Peter Boyle, Karen Allen, and Christopher Plummer add further epic notes to the film.

Lee is eternally patient with the story. He gives the proper foundation for Malcolm before prison, during prison, and post-prison. Each evolution of the man is measured and real. Occasional flashbacks are used to pepper his feelings, but not as exposition. There are no easy conclusions, only more questions.

Ernest Dickerson provides the powerful cinematography, while Ruth E. Carter provides the Oscar-nominated costume design. The script by Lee and Arnold Perl is by no means subtle, but it’s not supposed to be. Malcolm X was not a subtle man and the film should likewise follow suit.

Malcolm X proved Spike Lee could direct a massive undertaking while providing Washington the star performance only he could deliver. It’s an epic undertaking that works at every level.

Next week: Instead of a cliche-filled disability drama, director John Sayles has much bigger goals in mind with Passion Fish

All 1992 Oscar Blindspots
Review: The Tragedy of Macbeth

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