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‘Malcolm X’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 18, 1992

The much-hyped "Malcolm X" happens to be a spiritually enriching testament to the human capacity for change -- and surely Spike Lee's most universally appealing film. An engrossing mosaic of history, myth and sheer conjecture, this ambitious epic manages to sustain itself for 3 hours 21 minutes, and also overcomes an early frivolity of tone and Lee's intrusiveness to achieve a stature befitting its subject.

Lee, whose enormous affection for his hero suffuses his work, nevertheless resists the temptation to sanitize Malcolm as Richard Attenborough did Gandhi. The civil rights leader, as eloquently portrayed by Denzel Washington, emerges as an immensely likable human being -- a onetime black separatist who overcame his own prejudices. Still, this biopic will ruffle a few white feathers -- and probably a few black ones too; that's a given -- but "Malcolm X" addresses itself to all Americans, reminding us none too gently with its opening footage of the Rodney King beating that the work is never done.

Though the film covers 40 of the most turbulent years in our society, it seems oddly isolated from its time and place, almost as if the characters were trapped in a snow globe. This segregation may be purposeful, even astute, on Lee's part, but it denies Malcolm his historical underpinnings. And there's a theatricality to the crowd and street scenes that give the film the look of a Broadway play.

Lee, who directs the way other people order Chinese food, brings all manner of styles and moods to the film's four chapters -- Malcolm's troubled youth, his conversion to Islam, his ministry and his pilgrimage to Mecca. It's Washington's formidable task to pull all of them all together, to reconcile the disparate Malcolms, which he does with uncanny ease. To make sense of the internal struggle, it's essential to know the tragedies of Malcolm's childhood, as recounted here in the Lee screenplay based on Alex Haley's "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."

The hero is already a hunky teenager when the film opens. His wavy red hair thick with pomade, his features bathed in halo lighting, Washington seems to have walked off an art-deco playbill and into the movie. A Midwesterner newly arrived in Boston, Malcolm falls under the influence of a zoot-suiter, Shorty, played with camera-mugging gusto by Lee. Shorty outfits his new friend in flashy duds, teaches him to walk the walk, and in general makes the country boy cool in a musical sequence that plays like "Mo' Better Malcolm," complete with a big-band dance number.

Then Lee finds his way again as the story takes a darker turn. Malcolm, now living with a sluttish white moll and calling himself Detroit Red, falls in with a crime lord, West Indian Archie -- Delroy Lindo milking poison charm from the role as though from the fangs of a cobra. The first of a series of father figures who would guide Malcolm toward his destiny, Archie introduces the young man to a life of cocaine, numbers-running and robbery, which leads to Malcolm's incarceration and his subsequent redemption.

Washington, who has allowed his character to grow jaded and mean, still hasn't quite prepared anybody for the man who earned the nickname "Satan" in prison. He draws a portrait of a man who has regressed to his childhood, expressing his rage through temper tantrums that repeatedly land him in solitary. When he emerges from the dark, finally broken, he is drawn to the light of Islam by Baines (Albert Hall), an inmate who introduces him to the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman). As the fez-wearing and wizened Nation of Islam leader, Freeman seems to float above his chair like a Shriner on helium.

Elijah Muhammad takes the once-profligate Malcolm under his wing after his release from prison, whereupon Malcolm quickly becomes the holy man's chief spokesman, brilliantly articulating the rage and despair of his people to electrify blacks as he terrified white Americans. (As part of his transformation, Malcolm forsook white women, who may not appreciate being lumped in with pork and drugs in the Muslims' grocery list of poisons proffered by the blue-eyed devils.) Though he marries a suitably devout follower (Angela Bassett) and has a family, Malcolm seems more alone than ever as he becomes disillusioned with Elijah Muhammad and splits with the Nation of Islam.

Near the end of his 39 years, Malcolm abandoned separatist teachings after his pilgrimage to Mecca brought him into contact with devout Moslems of all races. And just as Malcolm opens his mind to the possibilities of global harmony, the film finally finds its epic scope. Lee delivers a surprisingly more accessible Malcolm than most remember. The passage of time and Washington's innate sweetness take some of the sting out of his words, their bitter vitriol evident in the newsreels that Lee weaves into the narrative.

Malcolm gets his deification when he faces the final fusillade of inevitable martyrdom. But Lee in the end cannot resist an opportunity to play the pamphleteer. "Malcolm X" closes first with Ossie Davis reciting Malcolm's eulogy, followed by Nelson Mandela's reading of one of Malcolm's more celebrated speeches, and finally with a belabored attempt to tie it all together with cute schoolchildren. It's a little much, but then so was "Gandhi."

"Malcolm X" is rated PG-13 for violence and adult themes.

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