Malcolm X: Special Edition Review

Malcolm X was one of the most controversial public figures of his time, an outspoken black activist whose life was finally made into film by Spike Lee in 1992. Nat Tunbridge reviews Warners’ R1 2-disk Special Edition of ‘Malcolm X’.

Very few films could be said to be genuinely important, in that they can effect a change in consciousness or have even a limited impact on society. Generally speaking, we experience a film’s impact only for the length of its running time. In the case of a particularly fine or thought-provoking piece of work, that impact may last some time, may even give us memories or impressions that stay with us for years, but ultimately it won’t cause us to change the way we think. It’s the same case with biopics, since very few human lives stand up to really intense scrutiny, and the overwhelming tendency to soften the hard edges and edit out the less savoury aspects of someone’s character in order to conform with our standard conceptions of what a screen hero or heroine should be, mean that the films produced rarely have much integrity.

In making ‘Malcolm X’, Spike Lee and producer Marvin Worth had an almost unique advantage: their source material was Malcolm’s own autobiography, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written in conjunction with Alex Haley. Very few figures of the past century who had the kind of social, political and cultural impact as Malcolm did, left behind such a painfully honest and compulsively readable account of their lives, or were capable of talking about the experiences of their early and middle years from a perspective of consciousness that effectively rendered these prior selves as distant as past lives. Malcolm was, incredibly, only 39 when he died, yet his total dedication to anything he did and, in his latter years, his absolute commitment to improving the lives of Afro Americans and unwillingness to compromise his outspoken views, meant that he travelled much faster, and went much further, than many public figures twice his age.

While Malcolm’s own account of his extraordinary life certainly gave Lee and Worth reams of priceless material to work with, it came at a price. The place that Malcolm holds in the hearts of Afro-Americans is hard to conceive for someone who, like me, isn’t Afro-American, but Lee makes it clear on the commentary track of this DVD how much pressure he was under to ‘get it right’, since Malcolm is held in such high regard. He and Washington had a running joke that they’d keep their passports close to hand upon the film’s release, in case they needed to leave the country quickly. Worth had bought the rights to Malcolm X’s autobiography and had been trying to make it into a film for over 20 years. Many different directors and actors had been connected with the project (at one time Richard Pryor was to play him!) until Washington, who was pushing the project forward, found an agreement with Norman Jewison. However, Lee ‘raised a ruckus’ (as he puts it on the commentary track) and met with Worth and Jewison to explain why he felt he ‘had to’ direct the film. Apparently, Jewison gracefully agreed, something that Lee thanks him for on the commentary track (Jewison would have his moment seven years later, when Washington would star in ‘The Hurricane’, his biopic of the wrongly imprisoned black boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter).

Despite its controversial lack of Oscars (it was only nominated for two) and the difficulties associated with its production (which are covered in the documentary in the Special Features), ‘Malcolm X’ succeeds almost completely in its enormous task of giving us a sense of what this great man’s momentous life was like, as much as any film could. In doing so, it inevitably will lead some to discover more about Malcolm. In this sense, rather than as an artistic achievement, ‘Malcolm X’ can be said to be an important film, in that it has the potential to lead people to discover the autobiography for themselves.

Nebraska. 1925. Even from a young age, the life of Malcolm Little (Washington) is blighted by racism. His father Earl (Hollis), a Baptist minister and advocate of segregation, is murdered. His mother (McKee), harried by the Welfare Agency and the stress of raising eight children by herself, suffers a breakdown and is committed to a mental hospital. After staying in various foster homes, Malcolm moves to Boston and becomes friends with musician Shorty (Lee), who introduces him to a lifestyle of dances and drugs. Although attracted to Laura (Randle), a well brought-up local girl, he is seduced by a wealthy white socialite, Sophia (Vernon) and the two begin a relationship.

Moving to New York, Malcolm is befriended by Harlem gangster West Indian Archie (Lindo), who introduces him to the criminal underworld. When the two have a falling out, Malcolm flees to Boston with Shorty and Sophia and sets up his own burglary team. Caught and sentenced to eight to ten years in prison, Malcolm is approached and soon converted by Baines (Hall), a minister in the Nation of Islam, a black muslim segregationist group headed by Elijah Muhammad (Freeman Jr). On his release, Malcolm quickly becomes one of the Nation’s most passionate ministers and a favourite of Elijah Muhammad, marrying a fellow member of the Nation, Betty Shabazz (Bassett).

However, his rise to national prominence generates jealousy among his fellow Ministers and hostility from the white media. His faith is shattered when he learns that Muhammad is an adulterer who has fathered children with a string of much younger women. Malcolm leaves the Nation of Islam and starts his own independent group. Undertaking the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, he witnesses the unity of humanity and embraces true Islam. Returning to the U.S a changed man, Malcolm rejects the black supremacist teachings of the Nation of Islam and pursues Afro-American rights within a new, humanist context.

But his time is running out. When his house is firebombed he and his family narrowly escape death. During a long, sleepless night, Malcolm prepares for a speech he is to give at the Audubon Ballroom the next day. He tells his wife over the phone that he is convinced some organisation other than the Nation of Islam is involved in his harassment. When the day dawns he drives himself to the venue alone. It is February 21, 1965…

There’s no doubt that ‘Malcolm X’ is a great film. Given the volatile nature of the subject matter, the size of the project and the number of things that could have gone wrong, in many ways it’s a miracle that it turned out as good as it did. The difficulties of authoritatively summing up such a man’s life, over the course of three decades, while keeping an audience’s attention, can well be imagined.

However, the opening third of the film does suffer from some flaws that, while being seen within the overall context of the film’s outstanding quality, still need to be mentioned at the outset. Partly, they stem from the difficulties posed in summing up the whole of Malcolm’s 39 years within 202 minutes. Alex Haley’s book begins with Malcolm still in his mother’s womb as the Ku Klux Klan surround the house. It progresses sequentially through his childhood and adolescence, his entry into the world of crime in Harlem and subsequent imprisonment, his conversion to Islam and rise to prominence in the Nation of Islam. It concludes with his exit from that organisation, his own spiritual and psychological rebirth following his pilgrimage to Mecca and his assassination. While the book was written, with Haley, in the final year of Malcolm’s life and benefits enormously from the insights he had, at that age, into his earlier life, it nevertheless is an essentially linear narrative, easy to follow and understand.

By contrast, Lee chose to begin the story in Boston during the early 1940s, with Malcolm a wide-eyed country boy laying on his first ‘conk’. The opening shot, a single gorgeous minute-and-a-half-long crane-to-steadycam tracking shot, cost over $1m and achieves its desired objective of establishing the film’s authentic historical credentials and grand thematic vision from the outset (or, as Lee puts it in the documentary, “…this is some David Lean shit we’re doing here!”). We follow Lee (as Shorty) into a local hairdressers where he prepares the concoction that will straighten Malcolm’s hair, making it look ‘white’. When we get our first glimpse of Washington, emerging nervously from a back room in a too-small suit – the archetypal country ‘hick’ – our first thought is: no, that can’t be Malcolm, which of course is exactly what Lee intends. He wants to show us how far Malcolm had to come. He immediately hits us with two more shots of this kind: Malcolm looking at his straightened hair in the mirror and proclaiming with delight ‘It looks white, don’t it?’ and a second later when Shorty and Malcolm, both glad in outrageous zoot suits, perform their zany choreographed walk across the Boston square, eyeing up girls and generally revelling in the attention they’re getting. It’s a great scene, bringing in a lot of warmth and humour and setting up a challenge that the audience feels the film has to meet: showing us how this man became the familiar, ferocious, black-suited black rights firebrand.

Then Lee throws in another curveball; the first flashback to Malcolm’s childhood (actually pre-childhood, since it occurs when his mother is pregnant with him); it’s effectively a cinematic representation of the first page of his autobiography, with Washington providing a voice-over. The Klan attack Malcolm’s house, then ride off. Lee features a wildly disconcerting shot, showing them on horseback, silhouetted like heroes against a full moon that takes up half the sky, while Blanchard’s score trumpets a weirdly modernist note of triumph. It looks for all the world like a Klan recruitment video.

Shorty and Red’s gunfight in the park is another strange aberration. It’s wildly out of place and representative of a weirdly camp strain that runs through many of Lee’s movies (remember the colour section of ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ and virtually all of ‘Skool Daze’?). Lee says the shot where Malcolm, playing dead, falls directly towards the camera which, equipped with a wide-angle lens, makes him look like a fallen giant, was based on the final shot of Billy Wilder’s 1951 media satire ‘Ace in the Hole’. Great, but so what?

Lee’s greatest asset can also be his biggest liability, namely, he doesn’t know when to quit. On the plus side, this means that in ‘Malcolm X’ he set out knowing for a fact that he didn’t have enough money to make the movie and yet was going to make it anyway (he ended up going to prominent Afro-Americans, including Bill Cosby, Tracy Chapman and Janet Jackson – all of whom appear in cameos at the end of the final credits – to ask them for funds to complete the film in the style it deserved). Rather more detrimentally, his filmmaking style can be whimsical and self-indulgent, choosing to focus on personal fancies that bear little relation to the overall arch of the narrative, as in the two examples above. Another example can be found in the Roseland Ballroom ‘showtime’ dance sequence. Fundamentally thrilling and perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the film and the time in Malcolm’s life that it’s supposed to represent, its effect is lessened when, at its climax, Lee himself slides along the floor and mugs directly into the camera, in a direct homage to MGM musicals of the period (or, as he admits in the commentary “…a Stanley Donen, Vincent Minelli joint right there,”). It’s an unnecessary personal homage that has little or nothing to do with the story he’s telling. These little flashy asides unbalance the opening segment somewhat.

Right, having got the minor niggles out of the way, I can get to the latter two-thirds of ‘Malcolm X’ which I think contains some of the best cinema to come out of America in the 90s. I can’t offhand think of a more powerful or compelling two-plus hours of film from that decade than the period from Malcolm’s conversion to Islam in jail to the final, extraordinary ending, where Lee goes beyond the scope of both biography and feature film to bring Malcolm’s message right up to date (relevant to the film’s release in 1992) and secure his legacy by having one of the most famous men in the world – and one of the greatest black civil rights leaders – appear to repeat his lines.

But we’ll get to that. What is it that makes this latter two-thirds of ‘Malcolm X’ so great? Simply put, it’s great filmmaking. Great editing. Great cinematography. Great acting. The music is great and, crucially, not overused. The sound mix is superb and completely immersive. The costumes and sets are outstanding. There isn’t one weak spot in Lee’s whole cinematic armoury. And all of it is being used in the service of the story. Lee and cinematographer Dickerson divided the film into five segments, the prison section being the second. As soon as we enter into prison, we’re plunged into a world of cold blues and greys, such a contrast to the technicolour pageant of the first part. Malcolm, having been dragged out of solitary, is recovering in the shower and is approached by Baines, who challenges his worldview and tells him for the first time about Elijah Muhammad.

This is really the beginning of the next stage of Malcolm’s life. Elijah Muhammad, the man who will shape the rest of Malcolm’s existence, has entered the film, invisibly but powerfully. His presence is conjured up in the ferocious pride and intelligence of Baines. Brilliantly, Washington chooses to underplay the scene, almost whispering his responses, intimating his potential receptivity, while Hall, magnificent, glares and roars at him. Crucially, the film is true to Malcolm’s experience at this point in his life, and is not seen from the perspective of disillusionment and betrayal that he was to arrive at, a decision that reflects the filmmakers’ fidelity to the spirit of their source material (at one point during the writing of his autobiography Malcolm wanted to remove details of the closeness of his relationship with Muhammad, but Haley talked him out of it). What we actually witness is a conversion, an extraordinary, moving spectacle, and the ideas and concepts that impact on Malcolm impact simultaneously on us. A momentum starts to build at this point that will carry on for the rest of the film, brilliantly sustained by Lee and his creative team. It will carry the audience through Malcolm’s transformation into Malcolm X, his spiritual rebirth and eventual assassination.

This next segment begins with a beautiful shot; Malcolm, fresh out of prison and waiting to see Elijah Muhammad, is gazing up the stairs to where he knows his master is waiting. He looks like a frightened child, and the scene will be deeply moving because of Washington’s utterly convincing portrayal of a man stricken with humility. Dickerson has dropped all filtration and is shooting with a naked lens, so the image is extremely clear, and lit it warm. Throughout the first half of the ‘Muhammad’ segment, the gorgeous deep browns of Muhammad’s office seem to reflect his unearthly glow; skin tones radiate health and spiritual vitality and the crisp white shirts of the brothers leap off the screen. Later, of course, shadows will collect in the corners of Muhammad’s room, the walls will seem to close in and the dark-suited brothers will appear menacing. Gordon Willis’ work on the ‘Godfather’ movies was a powerful inspiration for the look achieved in this section.

But the camera is also moving. The sense of gathering pace is conveyed with brilliant hand-held and tracking shots, following Malcolm as he goes to work on the streets, addressing the public about the life and work of Elijah Muhammad or, as in one scene, performing a slow 360 among an assembly of black street orators. We see Malcolm addressing small rooms, at first half-empty, then gradually, in successive scenes, more full. Along the way, we learn of the fate of some of Malcolm’s old Harlem buddies and are introduced to Betty Sanders, whom he marries.

Brilliantly combining staged re-enactments of Malcolm’s speeches, with a long, slow, steady zoom on a seated Malcolm watching footage of racist abuse on TV, and the ongoing life of his family taking place at home, Lee does a great job of conveying the passing of time and the growing power of the Nation of Islam. Incidentally, this sequence in particular also demonstrates the superb ingenuity of the sound mix, layering residual audience noise of the audience at the address, Coltrane’s spiritual musings and the occasional bitter stab from the newsreel footage around Bassett’s narration of Sister Betty’s letter to Malcolm advising him of their children’s progress. Speaking of sound, throughout the film an effect is used, augmenting the pop of a camera’s flashbulb so heavily that it sounds like a gunshot (and giving the subwoofer a good thump too). This repetition creates a tension and a sense of growing menace, particularly as it comes more often as the film nears its end.

As the rooms become theatres and the theatres become giant halls, Lee and Dickerson maintain the sense of steady movement, using swooping crane shots over the heads of thousands of extras at the awesome rallies, then switching to tight, mixed-media compositions for impromptu press scrums. The latter in particular is very effective. During the many scenes in which Malcolm or another character address the press, multiple cameras would shoot the scene using different film stocks – at least one using 16mm black and white film in a style based on that of real newsreel footage taken at the time. Not only does this help immerse the viewer in the sensibility of the period, it helps underline the fact that, in one sense, Malcolm’s later life was lived out on camera.

Then there’s the Hajj sequence, which is remarkable (not least because it was the first time 35mm movie cameras had been allowed into Mecca), brilliantly underscoring shots of the thin strand of white-robed pilgrims making their way through the desert and looming blue sky with Duke Ellington’s classic ‘Arabesque Cookie’. Finally, the section of the film leading up to Malcolm’s murder, with the different characters driving through Central Park to the Audubon Ballroom, while Sam Cooke’s sublime voice sings ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, is arguably the film’s highpoint. It’s all the more incredible when one learns that the scene was originally shot and cut without any reference to the song. Lee had the idea of laying the song over the top and it fit perfectly. Shooting Malcolm walking to the Ballroom, as in several of his previous films, Lee places his actor on the dolly with the camera and shoots directly at them. It hasn’t always worked in the past (it looked downright silly with Wesley Snipes and Lee in ‘Jungle Fever’) but here it works perfectly, representing Malcolm’s exhausted but resolute state of mind. And then through to the devastating assassination, staged with all the authenticity and drama that has been brought to the rest of the film.

That’s the last section of the film proper, but the film’s actual ending is far more unusual and powerful. Actor Ossie Davis, who as well as starring in several Lee films was also a friend of Malcolm X, rerecorded the beautiful, moving eulogy he wrote and delivered at the funeral in 1965 for the film. Against Davis’ narration, Lee unfolds a montage of footage of Malcolm throughout his life, moving into scenes of crowds in South Africa and New York celebrating his birthday. And then, in a finale of jaw-dropping audacity which is impossible to imagine as coming from anyone but Spike Lee, the children rising to shout their identification with Malcolm change to African children, standing in a classroom in Soweto and standing at the blackboard addressing them in Malcolm’s own words is… Nelson Mandela! Beat that! At this time Mandela hadn’t been out of jail for very long (he was released in February of 1990) so his appearance had even more of an impact at the time of the film’s release than it does now. Interestingly, Mandela agreed to repeat Malcolm’s ‘We declare ourselves…’ speech but asked to leave off the final four words as he felt that, in the then-current political climate, they could be used against him. Lee compromised by switching to footage of Malcolm speaking his own words, ending the film with his famous phrase: ‘…by any means necessary’ (stick around for the very end of the credits too, to see some brief cameos from some of the people who Lee went to for money to finish the film – Janet Jackson, Bill Cosby, Tracy Chapman et al).

Obviously much of the credit for ‘Malcolm X’ has to go to Denzel Washington for his remarkably focused and intense performance as Malcolm X. It’s his best work to date and among the best in American cinema in that decade. Denzel had played Malcolm before, in an off-Broadway play called ‘The Chickens come home to roost” but his preparation for the film was of a different order entirely. A year before shooting began, Washington embraced many of the aspects of the Muslim lifestyle that Malcolm led, praying daily, reading the Koran and refraining from eating pork. He also interviewed people who had known Malcolm and immersed himself in his writings and speeches. Much of Malcolm’s dialogue is taken verbatim from his autobiography and from speeches and press conferences he gave throughout his life. Interestingly, the only major scenes in the latter half of the film where this is not the case is where Washington himself improvises. For instance, in the Apollo Theatre rally scene, at a certain point Washington says: ‘I’m going to tell you like it really is,’ and begins extemporising on the themes of the speech in his own words, ‘channelling’ Malcolm. I wouldn’t have known this had I not heard it on the commentary; there’s no sense of awkwardness or indecision, he simply lets rip. It’s an extraordinary, utterly compelling performance.

He’s not alone. The cast throngs with powerful performances. Albert Hall is outstanding as Minister Baines, transforming from Malcolm’s stalwart saviour to the architect of his downfall. As West Indian Archie, Delroy Lindo is commanding, paternal and, finally, as in the scene where Malcolm discovers him after he’s had a stroke, heartbreaking. Angela Bassett is a model of dignified poise as Malcolm’s faithful wife Betty. Al Freeman Jr is eerily convincing as Elijah Muhammad, his scenes with Malcolm communicating the great warmth that the two men must once have shared. It’s a great cast. Also, I have to stress that the superb atmosphere created throughout the film is also due in no small part to Ruth Carter’s terrific costume design and production designer Wynn Thomas. Together the two and their associated teams do an extraordinary job of summoning up the atmosphere of the 30s, 40s, 50s and early 60s.

Thief. Pimp. Hustler. Junkie. Convict. Minister. Father. Husband. Muslim. Revolutionary. Icon. The question of how much Malcolm’s actual life was sanitised or altered for the movie is an important one. Obviously, it would be impossible to include all the details of 39 years of a man’s life into a movie, even one 202 minutes long. A filmmaker tackling such a project has to simplify and edit and, in editing, necessitates other changes for the sake of maintaining thematic consistency. For instance, only two ‘girlfriends’ of Elijah Muhammad are featured in the film, whereas Malcolm mentions nine in the book. From the film’s perspective the fundamental point – that the man whom Malcolm had considered a flawless moral example was anything but – is made, though not with as much force. While obviously it wouldn’t have made sense to show Malcolm visiting nine women, I think it would have been better to refer to the actual number as part of Washington’s voice over, to stick as closely to the book as possible. This level of departure from the printed word, however, doesn’t seriously impair the integrity of the film as a whole. Similarly, the character of Baines seems to be a composite of a man Malcolm met in prison in 1947 called Bimbi, Malcolm’s own brother Philbert (who actually introduced him to the Nation of Islam the following year) and assorted jealous ministers from the Nation of Islam, an act of cinematic shorthand that one has to regard as being, by all means, necessary.

Other changes I had to question: in an early scene Malcolm is seen smashing a bottle over the head of someone who has challenged him. This scene isn’t taken from the book and its inclusion isn’t discussed on the commentary track. If this is an event that did take place in Malcolm’s life but that he didn’t write about, I’m not aware of it. Also, Malcolm’s vision in prison is of The Honourable Elijah Muhammad whereas in the book Malcolm, after a night of intense prayer to Allah, sees someone sitting silently beside him who he later believes to be W.D Fard, the man credited with being Muhammad’s teacher, whom Nation of Islam devotees consider the Messiah, (Fard himself disappeared without trace in 1934 and was allegedly a convicted fraudster). Obviously both these changes serve the film and are convenient; the act of violence demonstrates Malcolm’s volatile nature when challenged about his mother and effectively introduces him to West Indian Archie (who himself doesn’t feature as strongly in the book as he does in the film, where he is effectively a composite of the many serious gangsters Malcolm was familiar with, as well as a surrogate father figure). The appearance of Muhammad in the cell introduces him to the audience before Malcolm gets to meet him onscreen, underlining the impact that he had on his life and emphasising the fact that his followers looked upon him as a divine being. Yet don’t both these differ enough from what Malcolm’s actual account to change one’s impression of him and his life?

Since Malcolm’s death, his family have had trials of their own. His widow Betty Shabazz was left to raise their six daughters by herself (she gave birth to twins after Malcolm’s assassination). Sadly, this extraordinary woman died a few years after ‘Malcolm X’ came out, as the result of burns sustained in a fire apparently set by her grandson, also named Malcolm. In February this year, the Audubon Ballroom – where Malcolm was assassinated – announced plans to turn the building into an educational centre in honour of him and his wife. It’s slated to open on May 19th, on what would have been Malcolm’s 80th birthday.

The 5.1 soundtrack is superb, featuring a lot of surround work that immerses you in the stunning crowd scenes and early musical sequences in particular (speaking of music, Lee’s taste is impeccable… Ella Fitzgerald, Sam Cooke, Joe Turner, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, John Coltrane…). It comes as no surprise to find that the Supervising Sound Editor on ‘Malcolm X’ is the Coen Bros’ regular acoustic wizard, Skip Lievsey. This is a great sounding couple of disks. A French language dub track is included.

The film is presented in 1:85:1 aspect ratio and is given an anamorphic transfer. Generally speaking, this is a terrific picture, clear, sharp and with great colours. My only caveat is about the first segment of the film. Dickerson and Lee agreed that the film would have five main stylistic sections, and for the first section of the film it’s based on old 1930s technicolour classics. Dickerson used a number of different techniques to achieve this look, including a ‘net’, made of old Christian Dior stockings, stretched across the frame. The success of this approach is arguable. While the sets and costumes are immaculate throughout, the first section of the film appears dull and underlit at times. In fact when I first started watching the DVD I was disappointed, since it had been billed as having been newly remastered. I should stress this disappointment didn’t last long and the rest of the film looks exceptionally good, but it does give one pause during the first half-hour or so (incidentally, the screenshots have turned out rather dark, but this doesn’t reflect on how the film actually looks).

Special Features
The movie is spread across two disks and so are the special features. The commentary extends across both disks. On disk one you have, in addition, the half-hour documentary ‘By Any Means Necessary: The Making of Malcolm X’, Additional Scenes and the Theatrical Trailer. On disk two you have the one and a half hour 1972 documentary Malcolm X.

The making-of documentary ‘By Any Means Necessary: The Making of Malcolm X’ is a handsomely produced affair with contributions from Martin Scorsese, Lee, Al Sharpton, Ossie Davis, composer Terrence Blanchard and Malcolm’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz (who looks startlingly like her father), among others. It follows the genesis of the film, the tussle with Jewison over directorship and the early problems arising from its planned length. It covers Washington’s extensive preparation, the challenges of shooting it, Washington’s performance, the finance crisis and the decision by Lee to push ahead and film in Egypt and South Africa regardless. The first screening of the movie to Warner Bros. executives, coincidentally on the day of the Rodney King riots, the shutting down of post-production by the bond company and Lee’s subsequent request to prominent Afro-Americans to contribute money to the project so it could be finished properly are all covered.

The Additional Scenes are introduced by Lee who says he thinks that the DVD is one of the best things ever to happen to directors and commentary tracks are a terrific education for would-be directors. Lee also introduces each individual deleted scene. Malcolm and Shorty watch Cagney and Bogey shows the then ‘Detroit Red’ and pal Shorty in a movie theatre watching a Warner Bros Cagney gangster flick (I think it’s ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’), a source of dubious but powerful inspiration for the young Malcolm Little. Sophie and Peg case a house shows the girlfriends of Malcolm and Shorty pretending to be magazine writers in order to gain entry to a prospective target of the burglary ring. The first colored President of the United States is a sarcastic comment made by a prison guard who sees the transforming Malcolm reading and studying furiously. The evils of pork is an extension of the courtship scene between Betty and Malcolm, as is The pleasures of an ice-cream soda. Malcolm teaches Benjamin discipline is the longest deleted scene, showing the tests the young aspirant is subjected to. Lee says The Sphinx nose, the Sphinx lips is the deleted scene he most wanted left in; it briefly shows Malcolm in Egypt hinting that Napoleon destroyed the Sphinx’s nose and lips because he was appalled at their ethnicity. Malcolm must return to America shows Malcolm back in Cairo after his Hajj being told by the diplomat who helped him get into Mecca that he must go back to the US and undo the hate teachings he undertook in the Nation of Islam. A second chance to answer the question is the most interesting deleted scene, because it seems impossible that it could ever have been included. Lee explains that Malcolm, as he says in his autobiography, always regretted an incident in which a white co-ed had approached him and asked him sincerely what she could do to help the black struggle, to which he had coldly answered, ‘Nothing’. In the scene, which Lee says they shot ‘for Malcolm’, a white woman approaches Malcolm in the lobby hotel where he spends his final night and asks him what she as a white person can do to help. He tells her to combat racism at its source; the home, and to pray. The deleted scenes are non-anamorphic, non-remastered, non-good, but of great interest to those who like the film.

The extras on Disk 1 end with the Theatrical Trailer.

Foremost among the Special Features is the extraordinary hour and a half long 1972 documentary ‘Malcolm X’, directed by Arnold Perl and produced by Marvin Worth, who were involved in writing and producing Lee’s ‘Malcolm X’ respectively. For anyone who is interested in Malcolm or in his story, or indeed in the development of Afro-American consciousness over the past 50 years, this documentary alone justifies the price of the DVD. From its striking beginning (two minutes of black screen and Billie Holliday singing ‘Strange Fruit’) it’s an astonishing work, constructed in an abstract and occasionally jarring style. The only commentaries are excerpts from Malcolm’s autobiography, narrated in booming fashion by James Earl Jones, which function as flashbacks to Malcolm’s young life as the main narrative thrust – represented by footage of Malcolm speaking plus a diversity of archive footage – plays. In fact, the structure of the documentary is not unlike the movie, and it’s clear how much of an influence it was on Lee. The footage of Elijah Muhammad speaking at Nation of Islam rallies is strangely hypnotic. It’s also extraordinary to actually see people such as Malcolm’s wife Betty Shabazz and Marcus Garvey, the man considered by many to be the father of black Nationalism. Most precious is the plentiful footage of Malcolm in press conferences and interviews, especially toward the end of his life. His passion and commitment, even at the distance of four decades, is still electric.

The commentaries on both disks feature Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, editor Barry Brown and costume designer Ruth Carter. Both Lee and Barry Brown provide brusque and entertaining commentaries. Lee understands the media game well and offers some ready made sound bites for people like me: “When the bond company took over the film, they didn’t want us to film in the Sahara desert. They offered us shooting on the Jersey shore in the middle of January. We weren’t going for that.” He refers to his relationship working with Malcolm’s widow, Dr Betty Shabazz, who served as a consultant on the film and who was not initially agreeable to the idea of seeing her and her husband’s cinematic alter egos arguing onscreen. He also points out the many cameo performances in the film, including co-founder of the Black Panthers, Bobby Seale, the controversial and outspoken civil rights activist Al Sharpton, independent film-maker John Sayles, the radical defense lawyer William Kunstler (ironically appearing as the judge who sentences Malcolm and Shorty to 10 years in prison). There’s also plenty of anecdotes: at the same time that Lee was making ‘Malcolm X’, Oliver Stone was doing post-production on ‘J.F.K’ and he allowed Lee to use scenes he shot for the assassination sequence in ‘J.F.K’ for a brief scene in ‘Malcolm X’.

Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson and costume designer Ruth Carter provide thoughtful, rather technical commentaries. Carter reveals that much of the look of the film, particularly Malcolm’s speeches, was based on documentary film and photographs from the period, such as those taken by Gordon Parks during his Nation of Islam assignment for Life magazine. Dickerson outlines his lighting strategy, use of filters and stories associated with particular shots. He also places many of the shots in the physical location whether they were captured. He takes us through the five stylistic stages that he and Lee divided the film into in some detail. For instance, during Malcolm’s break with West Indian Archie, and the loss of innocence this invokes, Dickerson kept the sepia tone but changed the brown net on the camera lens for a black one, bringing a slightly harder edge. The look changed completely for the prison sequence, with cold greys, blues and browns representing the challenging world that Malcolm is plunged into. It changed again for Malcolm’s emergence into the Nation of Islam and again, finally, for his spiritual rebirth in Mecca. Listening the commentary, I suddenly understood how Dickerson’s camerawork steadily removed more and more filters and obstructions from the camera, mirroring the layers of ignorance and delusion that Malcolm strips from his own mind as the film progresses.

Malcolm is arguably a more powerful figure today than he was when he was alive. Millions have read his autobiography and been profoundly affected by it, myself among them. I think the secret to his ongoing appeal is that he never compromised, he always insisted on the truth above all things, and willingly paid the ultimate price for it. Lee captures some of the passion and sincerity of the man in his film, which is given a terrific presentation on this DVD. While one might have hoped for more extras, those that are included are good, although they can’t substitute for a reading of the autobiography. Very highly recommended.

Nat Tunbridge

Updated: Apr 09, 2005

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