Malcolm X is a film I initially avoided in the theatres. But it took me completely by surprise when I caught up with it on video.
Spike Lee is a generally overrated filmmaker; his handling of complex social problems is often bombastic and reductive, while his technique is emptily flashy if not downright primitive. But this project, which I expected would bring out the absolute worst in Lee, shows that he is in full command of very difficult material.
Lee has always overloaded his films like Jungle Fever (1991) with characters, ideas and plot threads, as if straining to provide a total mosaic of Afro-American life and culture. The biopic – a form so often abused in popular cinema, as evidenced by Attenborough's Chaplin (1992) – suits him completely.
For once in Lee's work the dizzying array of faces, eras, cultural references and speeches finds a large-scale shape (almost three and a half hours) that feels neither cramped nor contrived.
Although Lee does not hide his own political agenda – standing up for necessary violence and against inter-racial sex – he provides a remarkably balanced view of the different ideologies espoused by Malcolm X (Denzel Washington in an outstanding performance) over the course of his very varied life.
From an apolitical youth through to the discovery of the Muslim faith, from aggressively separatist militancy through to a tragically terminated vision of social co-operation: Lee captures with vibrancy and insight all these aspects of Malcolm X's public life.
MORE biopics: Ali, Auto Focus, The Aviator, Basquiat, De-Lovely, Heart Like a Wheel, I Shot Andy Warhol, Kundun, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, Man on the Moon, Nixon, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Pollock, What's Love Got to Do With It?
© Adrian Martin February 1994