“For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake.” — Frederick DouglassFor Frederick Douglass, this was a moment of fury in a speech otherwise famed for its elegiac irony: He had been asked to deliver an address at an event celebrating the Fourth of July. Douglass couldn’t help but note that the Declaration of Independence paradoxically gave freedom to the world, but it didn’t give it to everyone. By 1852, the year of Douglass’ speech, roughly one in seven Americans belonged to another American. The Revolution that was forged on that first Fourth left its greatest battle unfought. A terrible reckoning loomed, and Douglass knew it.
One hundred years later, slavery had been crushed, but intolerance and cruelty remained. Racism had claimed the lives of innocents and leveled cities to the ground. A new resistance formed, dedicated to wrenching the Lost Cause’s death grip on social progress. Amongst that group of freedom fighters, Malcolm X could never match Douglass’ gift for magnificent poetry, but he did embody the broiling rage and wry frustration embedded within it. Where Douglass spoke of the thunder, Malcolm X brought the storm to bear on the Pax Americana. A change was indeed gonna come, and it would arrive by any means necessary.
A generation after Brother Malcolm joined a growing list of martyrs, Spike Lee sought to adapt his raw, sprawling saga for the big screen. It was a mighty struggle: His project spanned several decades and multiple countries, spread across a runtime of three and half hours. Also, Malcolm’s message was as explosive as ever. Lee dealt with budget issues, until celebrities like Oprah and Prince stepped in and pushed the film to completion. The result is Lee’s magnum opus–the movie he was born to make.
Malcolm X begins with a potent image: A Patton-esque shot of an American flag that burns as Malcolm delivers one of his angriest lamentations. “We’ve never seen the American Dream! We’ve only experienced the American nightmare.” The flag stays ablaze, until only an X remains at its center. Lee’s message is powerful in its simple irony: Despite his protestations, Malcolm’s story is distinctly an American one.
We then turn backward, to post-war Harlem. Malcolm Little (Denzel Washington) lives as a zoot-suited thief. He and best pal Shorty (Spike Lee) snort coke, date white women, and hustle from one day to the next. At this age, Malcolm is fiery, intelligent, and lost. He runs numbers for a savvy, ruthless gangster (Delroy Lindo), until this life catches up to him. Malcolm and Shorty get pinched and sent away for a lengthy stretch in prison.
In the joint, Malcolm refuses to cooperate with the guards. This lands him in the hole for weeks on end, and Malcolm slowly goes mad in isolation. Some might see this as a pointless act of rebellion, but it quickly draws the eye of Brother Baines (Albert Hall). Baines is an inmate who was been converted to Islam. In Malcolm, Baines sees a powerful, unyielding spirit. After much resistance, Malcolm joins the Nation of Islam and preaches the will of its figurehead, Elijah Muhammed (Al Freeman Jr.).
Once he gets outside, Malcolm coopts the insulting “Separate But Equal” doctrine and remodels it for the cause of Black Nationalism. He tells his followers that Islam offers the only path to strength and salvation, and that journey can and will take them back to African soil. This incendiary message draws the ire of three groups at once: The American government views Malcolm as a relentless troublemaker. Civil Rights leaders believe he is a rotten apple who threatens their entire barrel. Finally, Elijah Muhammed and his top lieutenants grow jealous of Malcolm’s rising celebrity. Malcolm and his wife Betty (Angela Bassett) live in constant fear for their lives.
That description boils a lot of plot down to its bare minimum. Malcolm X is as ambitious in scope as any biopic ever made, ranking alongside the likes of Gandhi and Lawrence of Arabia. The film seamlessly maneuvers between several timelines, and depicts Malcolm at many stages of his life. Despite its complexity, co-writer Lee does a great job keeping everything untangled and easy to follow.
Malcolm X also displays a masterful command of filmmaking craft. Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson create a gorgeous film, replete with passages of 8, 16, and 35mm photography. Despite its intense subject matter, this is a lush, cinematic experience, best viewed on the biggest screen possible.
Now, let’s talk about this film’s greatest greatness. As Malcolm X, Denzel Washington delivers a ferocious, career-defining performance. Yes, he won the Academy Award for Glory before, and another for Training Day after. But Denzel is in absolute peak form here, throwing himself into Malcolm’s pride and passion with courageous abandon. The buzz before Malcolm X came out said that he was too handsome, too famous, and just…too wrong to pull off such an earth-shaking role, but Denzel absolutely makes this movie. He didn’t win the Oscar–that would be Al Pacino’s retrospective nod for Scent of a Woman–a fact that stands as one of the biggest travesties in all of movie history.
Truly great art never ages. That statement may sound trite, but it’s also inescapable. James Joyce once observed–I’m paraphrasing–that the present is simply the past happening over and over again. Malcolm X doesn’t just retain its timelessness, it somehow seems to grow more relevant. Americans still quake with fear when shopping, crossing the street, or sleeping in their own god damn beds. As long as that continues, the country our forebears believed we could be, a fertile ground of imagination and opportunity, remains just beyond our grasp.
Perhaps that’s the greatest truth of the American Revolution: That last battle never ended. It rages on, en perpetua. When a man like George Floyd dies, gasping and gurgling with a knee on his throat, it feels like a piece of what makes this country magnanimous dies with him. What’s worse, how many George Floyds have cried out to the night, only to be unheard? Frederick Douglass was absolutely right. We need the storm–not to destroy, but to cleanse, to rinse, to reshape everything that was into everything that could be. The anger of Malcolm X was not only of, but also beyond its time. Malcolm’s words are scorching, provocative, and they live and breathe with more power than ever. His rage finally belongs to all of us. Now, it’s only a matter of what we do with it.
202 min. PG-13.