(Check out the list so far)
The Movie: Malcolm X (1992)
One Sentence Plot Summary: In one of the greatest biopics ever produced, Spike Lee presents the entire adult life of Malcolm X in an opus that still has a disturbing amount of relevance today.
Why It’s on the List: What do you know about Malcolm X? Think about this for a second before reading on because it’s a really important question to consider. He is an important Civil Right leader but is often reduced to Martin Luther King’s counterpoint. It is typical of a country’s media where conflict and norms are favored over complicated ideas. Malcolm X is a complicated figure. He’s not perfect, and Lee does a minimal amount of Disnefying to tell the story.
At three hours twenty-two minutes long, this is the longest movie on this list. We do not just spend all of our time with Malcolm X as a leader, speaking on the ills of America; we spend almost the entire first half getting to know Malcolm Little. We see him hustle, do drugs, date women, and conk his hair. The conking is such a fascinating and specific detail. In the hands of a white filmmaker, I cannot imagine a detail like this playing such an important role, but Little conks his hair a great deal and even has to dunk his head in a toilet to get the material out of his head.
I love the fact that this movie luxuriates on certain parts. We see an entire musical number where Denzel Washington and Spike Lee dance. Time is given to many relationships to show how Malcolm related to so many people. Albert Hall, a character actor who also gets relegated to guest starring roles, shines as Baines, Malcolm’s mentor and eventual rival. While in prison, Baines shows Malcolm the way, not only for bettering himself and shifting away from a life of hustling but also developing a more pure sense of self. Malcolm goes to jail and away goes the drugs, alcohol, and even pork. He becomes a Muslim and disciple of Elijah Muhammad.
Malcolm X’s story is not a simple one. He would eventually distance himself from Muhammad and find a sense of inner peace. Who knows what he could have done if given the opportunity? Alas, he was harassed by the Nation of Islam and eventually assassinated three years before King’s own assassination. One of by biggest complaints about some two hour movies is that they feel too comprehensive. Either they need to lose 20 minutes or go a full bore three hours. This is one of the rare movies to do that…and be incredibly successful. I know this film isn’t totally accurate to his life, but it certainly captures the major beats accurately.
*Angela Bassett gets almost nothing to do as Malcolm X’s wife although she at least has more agency than Kate Vernon as Sophia.
MVP: I cannot even imagine how Spike Lee managed to get three and a half hour biopic about one of the most controversial historical figures in American history into theaters. This is a masterpiece that at times echoes some of the epic dramas of the past: The Godfather, Goodfellas, JFK, but it is entirely something original unto itself. Lee has been making films for about 40 years at this point, and while I think I have liked some of his other films more, this might be his best crafted work. There is incredible acting on display, great costumes and production design, plus a score by Terence Blanchard that contributes to the emotional third act. And only Spike Lee would have the audacity to put the last seven minutes of the film as he did in this one.
Best Performance: There are some solid performances throughout, especially by Albert Hall as Baines, but there’s only one possible answer here, and that’s Denzel Washington. This is an extraordinary performance and his not winning an Oscar for it proves what a sham that entire process is. Washington does not just do an impression of Malcolm X, but he captures the essence and gives currency to words that were uttered 30 years before filming (and are still poignant 50 years on). Washington shows off some dancing skills and shows a clear differentiation between the Malcolm Little of the first half and the Malcolm X of the second half.
Best Quote: “The only thing I like integrated is my coffee.” – Malcolm X
Is there a sequel? Given how this movie ends, it would be really difficult for there to be one.