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By Brad Cook | March 31, 2005

Watching “Malcolm X,” I was struck by an article I read recently in the San Francisco Chronicle. The writer had seen Rush Limbaugh speak in San Jose and related the radio host’s reaction to a question about the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks: “All this talking is just resulting in people dying … We didn’t get peace with Hitler because we sat down and had bratwurst.” The latter point is true, of course, but if one truly believes that peace only comes through war, then is it such a surprise that Malcolm X came to the point-of-view that he did? How would any of us react to such open hostility, especially when perpetrated by those in power?

Of course, Limbaugh is just as misguided as Malcolm X was almost his entire life (hopefully Limbaugh will soften his tone before the end, as Malcolm X did). While both have made salient points—our only recourse was to go to war against Hitler, and Malcolm X made perfect sense when he said that blacks had every right to defend themselves against those who wanted to hurt or kill them—extremism can only beget more extremism, until the situation spirals out of control. Malcolm X played an important role in American history, but his real purpose was to serve as a counterpoint to Martin Luther King’s work, a warning that if the powers that be didn’t heed Dr. King, blacks might follow Malcolm X’s extremism in larger numbers. If that had happened, the riots of the 60s would have paled in comparison to the large-scale warfare that would have inflamed this country.

The first hour or so of Spike Lee’s epic movie traces Malcom X’s life from his early years, during which his father was murdered by the KKK and his mother lost her children to the social welfare system, through his troubled early adulthood as a criminal. While serving time in prison for robbery, an older prisoner named Baines took him under his wing and taught him the ways of Islam, which likely saved Malcolm from recidivism upon his release. He joined the Nation of Islam and became its most prominent speaker under the tutelage of its leader, Elijah Muhammad.

Eventually, however, his rise to power provoked jealousy among the highest ranks of the Nation of Islam, including Baines. He left the organization amid claims that Muhammad had impregnated several young women, but the Nation kept up pressure that resulted in his assassination. While Lee personally believes the Nation of Islam perpetrated that crime, some have linked the FBI and/or the CIA to a wider conspiracy. Whoever was responsible, it’s sad that Malcolm was silenced just as he began to moderate his opinions. He could have gained a position of much higher prominence in history. You likely don’t agree with the philosophies he espoused most of his life, but this film is an important look at a complex man whose life is little known to many.

Lee’s casting of Denzel Washington as Malcolm was absolutely perfect. Watching the 90-minute1972 documentary included in this two-disc set, I can see how Washington captured the essence of the man, from his walk to his speech patterns to the way he took over every room he entered. Like any great actor, Washington also included little moments that stick with you long after the film ends, especially the slight smile he gives his assassin as the man rushes the podium where he speaks, as if he knew the end was coming soon and had prepared himself for it.

Of course, you have to give Lee some credit for that performance too, since he’s the one who envisioned it through the script he co-wrote with Arnold Perl as well as the style of his direction. Unfortunately, such perfection in the casting didn’t carry over to every role, including Lee’s portrayal of Shorty, a pal from Malcolm X’s early days. While Lee does a decent job acting in his own films, he feels woefully out of place in this one, although his character is long gone by the second half of the story. Al Freeman Jr. also puts in a strangely exaggerated performance as Elijah Muhammad, a contrast that becomes more clear when you watch that 1972 documentary and hear him talk. While Muhammad’s speech was a bit odd, it wasn’t that over the top. Maybe Lee wanted him to come across as poorly as possible, considering he believes that the Nation of Islam killed Malcolm X.

The film is spread across two discs, with the special features found on both, including a feature-length commentary by Lee, director of photography Ernest Dickerson, editor Barry Alexander Brown and costume designer Ruth Carter. Disc one features nine deleted scenes, each introduced by Lee. Some of them seem like they were either cut short (to conserve disc space, perhaps) or they weren’t filmed in their entirety; they just cut off in an unnatural way. They weren’t remastered, so the quality is rough, but they’re an interesting look at little moments in Malcolm’s life that had to go, given the fact that the final running time was over three hours. I can see why all of them were cut—none of them are vital to understanding the story, although the bit about the Sphinx’s nose and lips was interesting, and I agree with Lee that he should have left it in.

Disc one also includes the 30-minute documentary “By Any Means Necessary: The Making of Malcolm X.” It features not only recollections by the principals involved but also comments from Martin Scorcese, Al Sharpton and others who have something to say about Lee’s efforts. In a nice touch, James Earl Jones, who narrated the 1972 documentary, also narrates this one. This isn’t just a feel-good documentary, however: it tackles head-on such controversial issues as Norman Jewison’s initial attachment to the project as director, only to step aside for Lee because he insisted it should be made by a black man. (Lest you think Lee only wanted blacks to be involved in the making of the film, he speaks very highly of producer Marvin Worth, as well as editor Barry Alexander Brown and others.)

The documentary also chronicles Lee’s battles with the studio, as well as his successful appeal to Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan and other prominent black celebrities for money when funds ran low. Unfortunately, 30 minutes is hardly enough time to get into the nitty gritty details of the making of a film as prominent as this one. Too bad Warner Bros. didn’t toss an extra disc in this set and allocate the budget for another hour or hour-and-a-half of material. This disc concludes with a theatrical trailer.

Over on disc two, we have that aforementioned 1972 documentary, which is a must-watch if you’re a fan of the film. Deservedly nominated for an Oscar, it vividly fleshes out Malcolm’s life, using plenty of archival footage to let his own words speak for him, sometimes to his detriment. It also captures the highly-charged atmosphere of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when race relations were perilously close to boiling over.

Astute viewers will note that many of Malcolm’s speeches were used nearly verbatim for Lee’s film, although their settings were sometimes changed to fit the narrative flow, such as when Malcolm returned from Africa and spoke to the media about his new ideas for his civil rights cause. In the documentary, we see him simply sitting down with a few reporters, while in the movie he’s in a large, open space (I think it was a train station), which gave Lee an opportunity to throw in an aside that foreshadowed his impending death.

The documentary mentions that Malcolm was drafted into the Army when he was young but received a 4F discharge because he said he wanted to kill white people. Too bad that wasn’t used in the movie; it would have really helped flesh out his early years.

The commentary, which is spread across the two discs, was put together from separate recordings of Lee, Dickerson, Brown and Carter. It’s a solid track that digs into aspects of the making of the film that the documentary didn’t have time to cover. Lee says somewhere else in the bonus materials that he encourages film students to listen to director commentaries on DVDs because there’s much to learn from a lot of them, and this is certainly one of those tracks budding filmmakers should heed. Lee, as well as the others, get into a lot of detail regarding how certain shots were pulled off and other behind-the-scenes anecdotes. Good stuff.

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