Spike Lee is a director who has contributed much to America Cinema throughout his rather long and varied career and even if you don't agree with his strong political and social beliefs you can't deny that his films have proved to be very influential.
Now I will review what I consider to be his most important film in terms of social and political factors, Malcolm X.
(I consider Do The Right Thing to be his most important film from a Cinematic point of view.)
Malcolm X was released in 1992, with a budget of about 33 million dollars and a gross revenue of about 48 million, so it can't really be considered a financial success, although I'm sure it made up for it's costs easily in the international release and the video market.
Denzel Washington stars as Malcolm X, Washington was a regular actor in Lee's films having appeared in 4 of his works.
The rest of the cast contains Angela Basset as Betty X and Spike Lee as Shorty.
It won 16 awards around the world including The Silver Bear for Best Actor (Washington) and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Malcolm X was one of the most controversial and, in my opinion, one of the most important figures of the past century.
Now, I am not Black but I must say that while watching this film and while reading the book it was based upon I felt very inspired and impressed by this great man.
But this isn't only a film with a powerful and important message, it is an extremely well made film with terrific performances.
The film begins with a powerful speech of Malcolm X recited by Denzel Washington. Its is set to a background of the US flag, intercut with scenes of racist violence apparently carried out by members of the police force. As the speech rises in it's level of passion, righteous anger and indignation, the flag gradually ignites and eventually burns out leaving only an "X".
The early scenes take place in Boston, during the War Years (WW2 that is), to distinguish these from the rest fo the film, Spike Lee chose to shoot them in a beautiful sepia tone. This adds to the already impressive recreation of the times which had already been achieved through the music, clothes, slang, vehicles etc...
Malcolm is first introduced as he receives his first "conk" (a process done to straighten Black peoples hair, so as to resemble that of Whites), he is a young men, new to the city and wearing a suit that is too large for him. He seems much like any young black man of his time and thanks to his new friend Shorty (played by the director, Spike Lee) is rapidly introduced to society and is soon dancing and generally having a great time. he eventually starts an affair with a white woman, for no other reason than having a white girlfriend was an important status symbol at the time.
There is little here to indicate what a great man he will eventually become.
But there is much that shows how he grew up, this is told through flashbacks interspersed throughout the time in Boston. These flashbacks are always short and appear at unpredictable times but are arguably some of the most powerful moments of the film. Seeing the death of his father, the decline of his mother, the foster home, the social services were very affecting, but one scene stood out in particular, in it a teacher tells Malcolm that he should give up his dreams of being a lawyer, not because he has low grades, for he has the highest of the class, but simply because he is a "nigger". This scene has long lasting implications, for instead of continuing his sheltered but ultimately degrading lifestyle in the hands of the carers, Malcolm leaves for Boston, where he begins his gradual decline into crime, drug addiction, hustling, violence, gambling and prostitution (not prostitution of himself, but he spends much time in such circles).
First we have Malcolm Little, the young boy growing up in Lansing, Michigan. Getting in to trouble through thievery and general delinquency and being treated with disinterest by all those who were supposed to take care of him.
Then we have"Red", he gained this nickname due to the colour of his hair, who moves into Boston and is drawn into the cultural and social life of the Black minority, an element he was unfamiliar with due to the rural area's he grew up in.
He eventually makes his way to New York and begins an extremely troubled existence which ultimately leads him to prison.In prison Red "dies" and Malcolm X is born, he joins the Nation of Islam and after being released becomes one of it's most vocal members, despite the fact that he is not the leader, it is only after his arrival that the Nation becomes a significant group, the majority of the members flocked to see him give his increasingly famous speeches.
It is during this period of his life that he reaches international fame and is labelled the "angriest black man in America", all of this comes to an end when he makes his infamous "pigeons coming home to roost" comment about the JFK assassination which only provided an excuse for the leaser of the Nation of Islam who had been becoming increasingly jealous of Malcolm and his charismatic speeches.
But before I go into any more details about his exclusion from the Nation of Islam I will write a bit about what I think of his views and of him as a person.
What makes Malcolm X's speeches so thought provoking is the fact that he didn't want to be helped by the Whites, he wanted the Blacks to get out of their present condition by themselves. He stated that they should stop waiting for charity to come their way and instead rise up for themselves. "Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you're a man, you take it."
His other radical statements include him saying that he did not participate in the civil rights movement because he did not see how the Blacks could have civil rights when they didn't even have basic human rights.
The fact that he went against what Martin Luther King said such as things along the lines of "turn the other cheek" and "never resort to violence no matter what", and instead said such things as "Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery" which garnered him much controversy, and accusations of inciting violence. Of course some of his statement were a bit too extreme, such as his one about JFK, but I think he was very angry and rightfully so, it was a righteous anger that powered him through his years in the Nation of Islam and only settled after his pilgrimage to Mecca. He had just cause though to be angry, he had been treated badly his entire life and witnessed countless atrocities carried out against people only because of their skin colour. He had seen the worst of the Blacks condition in the US at the time, the real rock-bottom, which is something other Black rights campaigners hadn't.
He wanted more than anything to help his black brothers and sisters and I find this admirable, he gave his whole life up for this cause and owned practically nothing for himself, instead sharing everything with the community.
He was a man possessed of an extraordinary intellect, his eloquence and wit never fail to astound me when I listen to his speeches or read his work. One gets the sense that he was extremely confident, he knew he had discovered something and he knew he bring about change, and he fully embraced this role, he was hardly a "reluctant hero", he knew what his purpose was in life and he accomplished it as well as he could. I'm afraid he would be disappointed if he could see the state of things now though, for at times in seems his work was in vain.
After being expulsed from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X embarked on a pilgrimage to Mecca during which he took on what was to be his final form, that of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. He got to know Islam in it's purer form, not the modified version that The Nation of Islam preached. He changed considerably during this period and his days as the "angriest black man in America" seemed to be behind him, yet threats from his numerous enemies grew more frequent.
Although his time in the Nation of Islam is wast he is most remembered for, I think it is during these last few years of his life that he was at his most interesting, his ideas dramatically changed and he started preaching peace and love, but sadly his life was cut short in the most brutal fashion.
He was shot on the 21 of February 1965, at the age of 39. Just two years after JFK was killed and three years before Martin Luther King was shot.
This is the finest work of his career and the fact that the Oscars left him unrewarded that year only proves how incompetent they are. Giving him the award for Training Day, which is frankly a mediocre film, only added insult to injury as he was expected to feel recognised and honoured for this award even though they had failed to recognise his finest performance and were attempting to make up for it.
Due to the controversy surrounding Malcolm X, it must have been hard for Spike Lee to choose how to portray him in this film, he does so very tactfully in my opinion. He does not make him the object of legend or myth nor does he try to bring him down to low which is a mistake many directors make when making a film about someone exceptional, for he wasn't "just a man", he was a great man, a genius and should be portrayed a such.
Spike Lee handles the subject perfectly, I strongly believe that no other director could have done such a great job. Most of the attention he gets is directed towards his strongly voiced political and social beliefs, yet I think people should look past that and direct praise where it is deserved, for he is an extremely talented director.
He shows these talents early on in the film, during the dancing scene, he doesn't indulge in to many close ups, which is something I can't stand, but many directors are tempted to do as it is simpler, instead he films wider shots than one would expect and leaves the action in the forefront, but these wide shots don't mean he's a static director, there is much movement in this film which keeps one engaged and entertained.
I particularly liked the shots he did which involve the camera swooping over the heads of the characters but not stopping when it comes across them, instead continuing past them and eventually cutting back to them from a different angle. The scene in the car at the beginning is also extremely well shot. All these are demonstrated at the early stages of the film, there are many more techniques of cinematic interest throughout the whole film.
So naturally I wanted to watch the film and upon reading a bit about it I found that none other than Spike Lee had directed it, I was very pleased at this for I believe no other director and certainly no white one, could have adapted this work to the screen suitably. I don't mean that white directors should only direct films for white people and black directors should only direct them for black people, indeed Richard Attenborough did a great job directing Gandhi even though he is far from being an Indian, in fact he is a British subject and the British are hardly portrayed sympathetically in that film.
But in the case of Malcolm X a film based on his life could have only ever been directed successfully by a black director, but not just any black director, one that shares his strong political and social beliefs to some extent, which I am sure Spike Lee does.
One aspect that deserves a special mention is the editing, it was some of the best I have seen in quite while, I don't know how to put it into words exactly, you'll just have to see it for yourselves. But there are many cuts, some of them quite rapid, without it ever seeming excessive as some films do.
The scene of Malcolm's death was extremely well edited, the rapid editing just adding to the drama and brutality of this scene, especially combined with the sounds of the gunshots.
This final scene is incredibly shocking, even though you know it's coming, in fact Malcolm X himself knew what was coming, as it says in the book and also briefly in the film, he was aware that he would die a violent death and that particular day had a foreboding that it would be his last, and yet he went up onto that podium anyway as he knew he could not cheat his destiny (I find this to be an amazing fact).
This final scene, and indeed the entire film are all very accurate, of course some composite characters were created and many events left out, but these decisions I can comprehend, thankfully nothing was fabricated for storytelling purposes and this film remains as truthful as possible to this great man's life.
But I should add that after the film ends, we see a classroom of African children being visited by Nelson Mandela, who quotes on of Malcolm's speeches, I found all these scenes after the death of Malcolm X to be unnecessary, I did like seeing the real photos of Malcolm and his family though, but I felt Spike Lee went a little too far towards the end, the film would have worked perfectly well without those final scenes.
All in all, Malcolm X is one of the best films of the 90's and certainly one of the most relevant. It is also a fine example of how to make a Bio Pic, which is something many directors do not seem able to accomplish.
It is straightforward, and deals with his life from his birth to his death, the audience isn't shown his early years then left hanging and informed in a few lines of what he accomplished later on in life. No, everything was shown, even if this makes for a lengthy film of about 202 minutes. It is worth watching nonetheless. I can guarantee that it will make you think about the racial issues in America for sometime afterwards in a new light, even if these issues do not concern you directly as is my case.
The film does an exceptional job at dispelling the myths that have gathered around Malcolm X as the years have gone by, he is often frowned upon and although his contemporaries such as Martin Luther King Jr are frequently mentioned, he often goes forgotten, in way he has become a "black sheep", not because he was wrong but because he spoke the truth, a truth most people (Blacks and Whites) are not willing to acknowledge.
Highly recommended to pretty much everyone. This is essential viewing not just for film buffs but for whole families in my opinion.