Film: Malcolm X
Director: Spike Lee
Starring: Denzel Washington
Runtime: 195 minutes
From the first residence of a home built on the labour of African slaves by George Washington to the present glass-ceiling breaking incumbency of Barack Obama, Afro-American history has been a trough of violence, struggle, despair, solidarity and, ultimately, victory. No film embodies the epoch-making point of this struggle more than Spike Lee’s Malcolm X.
Released in 1992, the film begins by juxtaposing one of Brother Malcolm’s fiery speeches against white racism, a burning American flag and footage of the devastating Rodney King beatings. Although Malcolm X was murdered 27 years before, his message still rings with resonance in a country paralysed by pockets of racism.
During the three hour epic, Denzel Washington packs in a powerhouse performance as the principled, if initially slightly misguided, civil rights activist, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the icon himself. The film catalogues his turbulent childhood, years as a sleazy street hustler, subsequent incarceration, conversion into the Nation of Islam, continuing activism and ultimate assassination at the hands of the sect which nurtured him, and Washington acts with style, grace and honesty – although it doesn’t match Malcolm X’s own autobiography for graphic detail and emotional shockwaves.
Watching this film in the light of President Obama’s accession to office reminds us of how far America has come since those dark days of civil rights activism. Denzel’s Malcolm X is an emblem of African-American destitution, waywardness, rage, dissent and ultimate reconciliation. Eulogised by the late Ossie Davies’ narrative in the films final scenes, Malcolm has reconciled his faith, race and civil rights struggle with a sense of being not just African, but African-American. One cannot help but feel that Obama is carrying on this great legacy of the ‘Change-a-comin’ with breaking the boundaries to accept the keys to the White House.
Overall, Spike Lee’s picture is a pleasure to watch with compelling performances given by all involved. It adequately serves its purpose in demonstrating the relevance of history to our contemporary lives. See it by any means necessary.