Review: Malcolm X (1992)

This is peak everything: peak Spike, peak Denzel, peak biopic; peak intersection of peak things.


Spike Lee didn’t need to make another masterpiece: by 1989, Do The Right Thing had established him as an outstanding film maker (even if Cannes awarded that year’s Palme D’Or to Steven Soderbergh‘s Sex Lies & Videotape – and I really need to find a source for Lee’s comments at the time on the race politics behind that decision).

But then he goes and makes an ambitious, sprawling biopic Malcolm X, played with born-to-play-this power by Denzel Washington. For one film to trace X’s real-life journey from hood pimp to convict, to outspoken face of The Nation of Islam, to independent civil rights activist, is promising enough. To be gifted with the mere existence of, much less portrayal by, the young Denzel Washington is remarkable – and that the uncanniness of his portrayal never overshadows its dramatic power is transcendent. But for all of that to then be told with the sweeping, urgent, riveting storytelling style that Lee brings to the film is downright miraculous. Brisk storytelling, stellar performances, gorgeous art direction, stunning costumes (Ruth Carter!), beautiful cinematography, watertight editing. It’s a Lawrence of Arabia-scale epic told with the intimacy of a much smaller character study.

Perhaps most impressively: it’s a biopic that not only never feels redundant, it feels crucial. Unlike films such as Ray or Ali, Malcolm X isn’t trying to outshine its subject’s real-life space in the public consciousness as some larger-than-life, charismatic, crowd favourite. There isn’t a whole lot of documentary footage showing Malcolm X in a positive light. The white mainstream media montage portrait of Malcolm X has rarely, if ever, been flattering or even sympathetic. The importance of his portrayal here is palpable, and its well-roundness is therefore as surprising politically as it is compelling cinematically.

… I think I don’t have the words (or the right, really) to try to articulate the significance of this film. I can only try to express how strongly I feel about it as an achievement.