With Spike Lee’s great biopic, I finish up my fifth year of “A Movie a Week” reviews, and it’s been quite a year.
I’ve been behind most of the year, as life has been busy for me. Very busy. On the one hand, I started a great relationship with a wonderful woman at the start of the year. On the other hand, my father passed away in October, making for a stressful holiday season, and end of the year.
And yet, I carried on. I missed one film I had wanted to review, but mainly because I don’t own it, and it wasn’t available in a timely manner via Netflix. But that will be seen (again), and reviewed, in time, even if it isn’t a part of this series, because I already have my slate set for 2014. Hopefully, I’ll be able to settle in to a more stable schedule as I continue this great experiment in blogging about movies.
Spike Lee ended up being a great choice for my “bookend” filmmaker, as he released a new film this year (the remake of “Oldboy”), and went to Kickstarter to get funding for his upcoming film, which I proudly contributed to. Now, he will be a part of my regular rotation of filmmakers I review yearly, and believe me, I have a lot to catch up on with him. I can’t wait to do so.
I hope you enjoy, and Happy 2014!
“Malcolm X”– A+
Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” starts boldly, and brutally. An American flag burning. The words of Malcolm X, as spoken by the indelible Denzel Washington, loud and clear, and charging the white man with his crimes over the years. Terrence Blanchard’s score blares intensely, and the flag burns into an X as Lee intercuts images of the Rodney King beating by four white cops, which had just come out a year before, and was the latest flash point that made us realize that for all our “progress” in terms of race relations, there was still a long way to go.
I put “progress” in quotes because honestly, it’s hard to imagine that we’ve made much progress at all. Yes, slavery is a thing of the past, and the Jim Crow era ended with the Civil Rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s, but look at the blunt racism directed towards our first African American president. And the racism directed towards Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old kid who was killed after what appears to be a case of racial profiling. And the gutting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by the Supreme Court because, well, systematic racism is done with. Well, according to some people on that last one. And those are just the three most prevalent examples that pop to mind as 2013 draws to a close.
Spike Lee understands this quite well, and it’s made him a polarizing figure in modern cinema. But no other filmmaker has done more to try and bring the issues that divide us to light in the past 25 years. The way he’s done so, however, is what hasn’t really sat well with people over the years. Rather than pussyfoot around these issues, he’s used blunt honesty, and I’ll admit, it’s uncomfortable at times. But Lee always manages to keep things entertaining. Few great films are as much fun to watch as “Do the Right Thing,” even though the finale is tinged with sadness about how far society has yet to go before Sal and Mookie truly understand one another, and the actions they took. After “Do the Right Thing” came “Mo’ Better Blues” and “Jungle Fever,” and Lee took things a little further.
And then, there’s “Malcolm X.” Here’s a 3 hour, 20 minute epic, made within the studio system, about, arguably, the most polarizing figure of the Civil Rights movement, with an Oscar-winning actor in the lead role who was respected, but not quite the star this film would turn him into. And it was apparently a struggle every step of the way for Lee, but the freedom it afforded him when it became a hit, and an Oscar nominee for Best Actor (Lee was passed over for Director, as was the film for Best Picture), allowed him to keep pushing things with films like “Clockers,” “Get on the Bus,” “He Got Game,” as well as documentaries like “4 Little Girls” and “When the Levees Broke.” Lee might disagree with my use of the word “freedom” given how difficult each film seems to be for him to make (Hell, he had to go to Kickstarter to get funding for his next film), but he still has more opportunity to do things he wants to do than other filmmakers do, and “Malcolm X” plays a big part of that.
“Malcolm X” also played a big part in the rise to stardom of Denzel Washington, who became a leading man outright thanks to his forceful, riveting portrayal of the Civil Rights icon. Watching the film again, it’s hard to imagine how Al Pacino won Best Actor over Washington for “Scent of a Woman”– I’m guessing the fact that Pacino hadn’t won an Oscar played some part of it, whereas Washington already had for 1989’s “Glory.” Washington would get his due, though, for 2001’s “Training Day,” but anyone with half a mind when it comes to great acting knows he deserved it more for “Malcolm X.” Yes, intensity is his big “go to” emotion as an actor, but that makes it all the more powerful when we see him vulnerable, and playful, and full of warmth and love. All of these emotions are on display at different times in “Malcolm X,” and it makes for a galvanizing, portrait of a man who challenges our prejudices; who challenges the social order; who challenges the way people think about the world, and themselves. Yes, the person of Malcolm X has been gone since 1965, but his influence can be seen today, and thanks to Lee’s film, will live on for generations to come.
This is a monumental cinematic achievement. “Do the Right Thing” is very much Lee’s best film, but “Malcolm X” is it’s equal in a lot of ways. Lee, who shares screenplay credit with Arnold Perl (who began work on the script from Malcolm X’s autobiography in the ’70s, and passed away in 1971), shows us the man’s life from his difficult youth, and his upbringing by a minister father who died under mysterious circumstances and a mother who was deemed “unfit” to raise her own in his father’s absence, to his turbulent 20s, where he lived a life of crime and drugs and irresponsibility, and his time in prison, where he was introduced to the teachings of Islam and the Black Muslim leader, Elijah Muhammad, and became a preacher for the Black Muslim Nation. After speaking out against Elijah Muhammad, and after some inflammatory statements after the assassination of President Kennedy, he is forced out of the Black Muslim Nation, but continues the fight towards Civil Rights, albeit with a more open mind towards other black leaders. The most extraordinary sequence in the film is when Malcolm goes to Mecca on pilgrimage, where he gets his broadest look yet of the world as a whole, and sees that his previous path was not one of unity, but of division. I don’t want to say it was the wrong one, but as we see in this film, Malcolm definitely doesn’t see it as a right one anymore. This is when Washington and Lee find themselves at their most compassionate, as actor and director are completely in sync in terms of what they set out to show about this controversial man. It’s a bold portrait, and it’s a great movie that isn’t afraid of looking at the issues head on, and attacking them without hesitation. Very much like it’s protagonist.
2013 “Movie a Week” Reviews
“Do the Right Thing” (1989)
“The Guru” (2003)
“Reservoir Dogs” (1992)
“Die Hard” (1988)
“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948)
“Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” (2002)
“The Wizard of Oz” (1939)
“About a Boy” (2002)
“Citizen Kane” (1941)
“Broken Blossoms” (1919)
“The Last Laugh” (1924)
“The Grapes of Wrath” (1940)
“The Game” (1997)
“The Passion of Anna” (1969)
“King Kong” (1933)
“William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” (1996)
“Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (1986)
“Steamboat Bill Jr.” (1928)
“Basic Instinct” (1992)
“Roger & Me” (1989)
“Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut” (2006)
“Much Ado About Nothing” (1993)
“South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” (1999)
“The Secret of NIMH” (1982)
“Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988)
“Cloak & Dagger” (1984)
“The Killer” (1989)
“La Dolce Vita” (1960)
“Gojira (Godzilla)” (1954)
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977)
“Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams” (1990)
“Apollo 13” (1995)
“The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)
“The Exorcist” (1973)
“Sleepy Hollow” (1999)
“Raging Bull” (1980)
“The Replacements” (2000)
“Being John Malkovich” (1999)
“Meet the Feebles” (1989)
“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (1989)
“Malcolm X” (1992)