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‘Malcolm X’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 20, 1992

MAalcolm X is a trigger for potentially volatile debate. Was he an influential or a peripheral black leader? Was he anti-white or was he leaning toward reconciliation between the races after his famous trip to Mecca? Was he a prophet or an articulate demagogue? Was he a political chameleon to everyone?

Whatever the "answer," his legacy among young black Americans -- however translated, marketed or distorted -- is mythically unmistakable. Spike Lee's "Malcolm X," which stars Denzel Washington, speaks to them -- and many more. It ushers the man -- known variously as Malcolm Little, Detroit Red, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and Malcolm X -- out of devoted black corners and into the mainstream hallway.

With the right success -- and guaranteed Oscar nominations next year -- the movie could do for Malcolm X what the federal holiday did for Martin Luther King: legitimize his beliefs nationally. An almost 3 1/2-hour, $30-million-plus tribute, "Malcolm X" is Lee's finest, most unabashed labor of love.

Divided into three sections, "X" begins with Malcolm Little's troubled early years. During his childhood, the Ku Klux Klan burns down his family home, murders his preacher-father and drives his mother to institutionalized insanity. As adolescent "Detroit Red," Malcolm dabbles in the universe of white deviltry. He straightens his hair, he chases white women (particularly moll Kate Vernon) and he joins up with Harlem racketeer Delroy Lindo.

The second section depicts Malcolm's prison years, after he's busted for robbery in Boston in 1946. In the slammer, thanks to the teachings of a religious inmate (Albert Hall), he undergoes a spiritual transformation and becomes a follower of the Nation of Islam.

Finally, Malcolm (now "Malcolm X") becomes the most prominent disciple of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.), before breaking with Muhammad to lead his own movement. During this time he marries Betty Shabazz (played by Angela Bassett), weathers intense surveillance by FBI and CIA agents, has an even deeper transformation on a journey to Mecca and returns for his final, well-known destiny.

Lee, who rewrote an original script by James Baldwin and Arnold Perl, not only depicts Malcolm X's life in its virtual entirety but also makes inspired contemporary references to Rodney King, the Soweto uprising and even the Rev. Al Sharpton. He also creates some exhilarating scenes. Malcolm's teary first meeting with spiritual icon Elijah Muhammad is particularly stirring. So is the extended sequence in which he leads a synchronized regiment of Nation of Islam followers to a police station and hospital to ensure a black man beaten by police receives proper medical attention.

In the title role, Washington smooths the political figure's rough edges with his immensely likable personality; he also charges his quieter moments with passionate fire. He might as well draft that Academy Awards speech right now. Freeman should also anticipate an all-expenses-paid trip to L. A. next March; his squeaky-voiced rendition of Elijah Muhammad is oddly memorable.

This wouldn't be a Spike Lee movie if it lacked flaws. The most obvious is Lee's prominent casting of himself as Shorty, a fictional conglomerate of Malcolm X's friends. In his devotion to Malcolm X, Lee seems to have figured that a little self-devotion is also in order. He gratuitously dominates the opening scenes. For a time at least, they could have called this movie "Spike X."

There's a case to be made for showing a person's whole life. But there's an even stronger one for encapsulating it. At times Lee seems to confuse "epic" with "very long." The entire opening section could easily have been X'ed, with all crucial information resown into the rest of the movie.

It is vital to the movie's purposes (showing the mentally imprisoning effects of 400 oppressive years) that white people be rendered in shades of cartoonish villainy. There are white temptresses, demeaning teachers, nasty cops and treacherous CIA agents among others. But on the other hand, Lee goes too far in that direction when he has Elijah Muhammad -- referring to whites -- ask Malcolm, "Have you met one that wasn't evil?"

Lee is traditionally weak about endings. The man who at the beginning adroitly juxtaposes the scandalous Rodney King beating with an impassioned Malcolm X speech ("We've never seen democracy. All we've seen is hypocrisy . . . .") is the same one who clubs you senseless with overextended consciousness-raising at the end. The final section is literally a classroom lecture to the audience, delivered -- in a surprise appearance -- by a present-day black leader.

However, the power of Lee's intentions outweighs the flaws. Intensity of purpose triumphs over structural failings. Lee has chosen a big subject and, with his quirky talent, has done it superb justice.

Copyright The Washington Post

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