Note: In the following joint Blu-ray Book review, Yunda Eddie Feng joins John in commenting on the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, and Extras.
The Film According to John:
Contrary to popular belief, Denzel Washington did actually have a movie life before doing Spike Lee’s 1992 film, “Malcolm X.” I mean, Washington had already done things like “The Mighty Quinn” (1989), “Glory” (1989), “Mo’ Better Blues” (1990), and “Mississippi Masala” (1991). It’s just that his towering performance in “Malcolm X” so overshadowed them that we think of his career starting with the biography of the controversial black activist and civil-rights leader. It was movies like “Philadelphia,” “Crimson Tide,” “Devil in a Blue Dress,” “Courage Under Fire,” “The Hurricane,” “Remember the Titans,” “Training Day,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” “American Gangster,” and “Unstoppable” that came later.
Anyway, “Malcolm X” owes its success to a combination of things, not the least of which is Washington’s performance. The movie is an excellent combination of direction, production, script, and acting that deserved many of its award nominations and wins. Despite its contentious subject matter and an exceedingly long 202-minute running time, the story flows in a sensible, straightforward manner, with director Spike Lee and his crew keeping us fascinated and informed for the film’s duration. It’s an accomplishment that deserves its deluxe Blu-ray Book treatment.
What has always struck me about the film, which screenwriters Arnold Perl and Spike Lee based on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (as related to author Alex Haley), is that it is so thoroughly unmannered. At least, unmannered insofar as a film by Spike Lee (“School Daze,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever,” “25th Hour”) can ever be unmannered. The director has an often-flamboyant style, yet here he presents both the movie and its star performance in as forthright a fashion as a viewer could want; you might say Lee’s direction seems actually reserved by his standards. This is undoubtedly the way Lee should have done it; nothing flashy. He lets the main character’s life speak for itself.
Malcolm X (real name Malcolm Little) grew up in poverty, became involved in crime at an early age (gambler, thief, pimp, hustler), and spent time in prison where he read the writings of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam (also known as the Black Muslim faith). When he got out, he became a fervent believer in the Black Muslim cause, eventually becoming the organization’s national spokesman in the 1950’s. He preached in disputatious terms about black pride and black separatism, going so far as to advocate violence in cases of self protection. His obvious militancy turned off as many people as it inspired, and before long he had his own throng of followers who believed they had finally found a “voice” for their frustrations, and his own throng of objectors who believed he was a fanatic rabble-rouser and a threat to the common good, both black and white. Because of Malcolm X’s radical lecturing, the Nation of Islam asked him to leave, but later he recanted many of his more-rabid beliefs and acknowledged that blacks and whites might be able to live in peace after all. He died in 1965, gunned down at a rally of his followers.
Working with a life so intense, is it any wonder that Lee chose to present the film biography with as few frills or fanfare as possible? He lets Malcolm X’s real-life story take care of that. Of course, the movie does run the risk with many viewers of seeming too traditional a profile and becoming tedious in its lengthy running time. And that is always a danger with these three-hour-plus extravaganzas, even when the subject is as intriguing as it is here. Although the film never rambles, Lee probably needn’t have tried to fit every detail of the character’s life into the story line, either. The director could have cut the film by a good half hour, even an hour, without much discomfort.
Still, even in its current lengthy form, Washington’s engaging performance and Lee’s quiet passion for the material continuously inspire the viewer. Heck, Washington not only sounds and acts the way newsreels portray Malcolm X, Washington even looks like the man. “Malcolm X” may not be the greatest film ever made, but it’s one worth seeing.
Oddly, for filming a really big film, director Spike Lee chose a familiar 1.85:1 screen ratio rather than anything wider. Perhaps it was his way of coming closer to the times in which Malcolm X spent the last days of his life. I don’t know. In any case, Warner video engineers preserve the image pretty well using a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec. They appear to have retained much of the film’s inherent print grain, although it is never really noticeable except in some stock footage of the era. While there is a touch of light smearing and a bit of warm, dark murkiness at times, most of the film looks bright and sharp, even the scenes where Lee seemed to be going for an effect of natural lighting. Colors look realistic, blacks reasonably deep, and definition acceptably high.
Lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 renders the soundtrack in clear, clean terms. The front-channel stereo spread comes across commendably, very wide and fairly deep. The surround levels are not particularly strong, but when they kick in for crowd noises and occasional voices, they do an effective job. Understandably, there is a good deal of dialogue in the film, which the midrange handles nicely in a smooth, lifelike, well-defined manner. A broad dynamic range impresses one, too, and the strength of the dynamic impact may sometimes actually startle you out of your seat.
Warners do up the movie in fine style by presenting it in a two-disc Blu-ray Book edition. Disc one contains the feature film; fifty-two scene selections; English, French, Italian, and Spanish spoken languages; French, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish subtitles; and English and Italian captions for the hearing impaired.
In addition, the Blu-ray disc includes an above-average audio commentary by director Spike Lee, director of photography Ernest Dickerson, editor Barry Alexander Brown, and costume designer Ruth Carter; nine deleted scenes, totaling about twenty-one minutes, with introductions by the director; a thirty-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, “By Any Means Necessary: The Making of Malcolm X”; and a widescreen theatrical trailer.
Disc two, a DVD, contains the 1972, Oscar-nominated documentary “Malcolm X.” It is ninety-one minutes long and features a narration by James Earl Jones and a eulogy by Ossie Davis. The two discs come housed in a hardbound Blu-ray Book with some forty pages of text and pictures.
The Last Word from Yunda Eddie Feng:
Confession–I’m not a big Spike Lee fan. I haven’t seen most of his movies, and I don’t really have a desire to see them. Yet, when Warner Bros. released “Malcolm X” on VHS in 1993, I borrowed it from my local library as soon as I could. I remember expecting angry denunciations of white people and America, in part based on the commercials that had been playing on TV. Instead, I saw a mature, balanced, and–most surprisingly–lively evocation of a tumultuous time in American history. Spike Lee didn’t simply worship Malcolm X as a god of sorts, and he didn’t simply shoot without asking questions. Instead, Lee presented a well-rounded view of a civil-rights leader who still inspires complex and oppositional feelings.
“Malcolm X” is a strong, potent movie. With the exception of the Rodney King footage at the beginning of the movie and the “I’m Malcolm X!” ending, the movie never strikes a wrong note. What makes the movie work so well is the fact that Spike Lee tempered his anger and avoided making an out-of-control polemical about black militancy. Malcolm X emerges as a sober, rational leader who veered from one extreme to another but eventually rejected all extremism in favor of constructive social change. (For example, as fellow critic Roger Ebert noted, there’s an insightful scene in which Malcolm X rejects the help of a white woman, and the camera lingers on the hurt that registers on her face, in essence commentating on how Malcolm X made a rash decision that wasn’t necessary.) Sadly, too many black people who cite Malcolm X as a role model today only focus on his messages of black separation and black strength rather than on peace.