Coming into my first viewing of Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic Malcolm X, my biggest question was whether the film could transcend the typical biopic. Could Lee follow up his masterpiece Do the Right Thing with the same anger and style? Malcolm X was certainly a figure that would allow for this, a radical subject that could be reflected with radical filmmaking.
As I’ve seen more and more biopics over the years, the ones that have continued to stand out are those focused on the micro instead of the macro. The films more interested in presented an entire life have become much less interesting, more adherent to a formula. A more recent trend of biopics that focus on one specific event or time period in its subject’s life have become so much more resonant, insightful, and artistically adventurous. Our Related Review this week, Selma, is a prime example of that.
Honestly, seeing that Malcolm X’s runtime was over 200 minutes gave me some pause. How thoroughly radical could a biopic be when that long? Surely, this alluded to a more conventional form of storytelling. It’s true that Malcolm X spans nearly the entire life of its subject and that long stretches are a classic re-telling of his life. The auteurist touches that Spike Lee provides, however, do enough to set the film apart from the greater mass of its genre.
The first indication that Malcolm X is more than just a biography of the title character happens within the film’s first frames. We are introduced to Malcolm X through one of his powerful speeches, as the man has been known, but we only hear the audio. What we see is something that lives completely outside of the film: the famous footage of a group of white police officers beating Rodney King. This incident occurred little more than a year before the release of Malcolm X and it was still fresh in the minds of many. Obviously, this specific incident doesn’t have anything to do with the life story of Malcolm X—another filmmaker making a clearer biopic on the subject would never think to use this footage. It immediately drives Spike Lee’s vision, his anger, his perspective on making Malcolm X and reflecting on its subject.
If I had seen Malcolm X before this year, I likely would have interacted with this provocative opening differently, were it not for two profound documentaries that have been recently released: LA 92 and Let It Fall. Both of these films fully explore the Rodney King footage with different stylistic approaches. Seeing either, however, provides a deeply thought exploration of how this wasn’t a singular event, that Los Angeles [and the country in whole] were leading to a racial breaking point for a long time. I don’t recall either of those films specifically mentioning Malcolm X or his work, but Spike Lee obviously saw the connection.
As the film moves on to the more traditional biopic plotting [seeing Malcolm as a young man without his future political leanings] the image of Rodney King was still burned into my head. I doubt anyone watching Malcolm X needs to be reminded where the story leads, but there is a lot of time spent on Malcolm’s tribulations as a boy [with the typical omnipresent voice-over] and the man who seems to be more interested in the fashion of his brightly colored suits than the racial injustice around him. I never lost faith, though, that Spike Lee wasn’t willing to tackle tough themes with his usual boldness.
In the film’s final acts, as Malcolm X is now the historical figure, Lee uses another stylistic splash with great effect. At times when Malcolm is delivering a speech or giving an interview, the film uses a heavy grain black-and-white image, like something you would see in an old, low-budget documentary. The effect is obviously one to blur representation and reality, bringing the film closer to the raw reality.
And then Spike Lee goes a step farther for the film’s conclusion, into full documentary. The final five minutes or so is a mixture of photographs, archival footage, and filmed segments that act as something of a eulogy for Malcolm. Like the opening vision of Rodney King, this section reaches out to display other important African Americans [or Afro-Americans as Malcolm preferred] who have carried on Malcolm’s legacy of resistance. After watching the staged assassination of the character, this piece is immediately striking, as powerful and poignant as the three plus hours we’ve seen before.
This transitions into a classroom section that links Brooklyn to South Africa is a beautifully uniting way. As black children stand up and proclaim “I am Malcolm X” the film is at its most like Do the Right Thing—the direct-address to the camera was a touch Lee used in that previous film and this confrontation brings the film and its subject somewhere higher, linking Malcolm X not just to the tragedy and inequality that persisted after his death, but the strength of a new generation of leaders.
What should be the goal of a biopic? To accurately or completely portray someone’s life? To teach the viewer something they didn’t know about the subject? To heighten the importance of the subject? That is probably true of most biopics [and Malcolm X basically fits those parameters] but I’m always looking for something more. As the narration tells us in the final eulogy, “If you knew him, you would know why we must honor him.” And Spike Lee’s Malcolm X definitely honors the man with its energy, style, and artistic vision.