Yesterday was Malcolm X’s birthday, May 19, 1925, often celebrated as Malcolm X Day, and since this is the closest Throwback Thursday, it seems appropriate for a review of Spike Lee’s biography Malcolm X (1992) starring Denzel Washington. In some ways, this is Lee’s most conventional film, being a standard biopic of an important historical figure. The first hour jumps around a little bit from Malcolm Little as a young hoodlum in the 1940s to his childhood and his parents’ story, then the rest of the film is a chronological telling of his conversion to Islam in prison, his rise in the Nation of Islam, his marriage, political conflicts within the Nation of Islam, his pilgrimage to Mecca, and ultimately his assassination. The film’s screenplay was largely based on Alex Haley’s 1965 book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which, in turn, was a collaboration between Malcolm X and Haley.
The opening scene is one of Malcolm X’s speeches criticizing the inherent white supremacy of America, interspersed with images of the 1991 beating of Rodney King by four police officers, and Malcolm X actual words are used throughout the film. Spike Lee told the LA Times in 1992 about this opening:
“What Malcolm X talked about back then, 30 years ago, is still with us today. Black folks in this country are still second-class citizens. And that is why we began the film with the American flag burning down to an X with the Rodney King footage, to show that not much progress has happened. And please, don’t think of this film as just a fossil, a dinosaur, a historical document. The stuff that Malcolm X was talking about is still relevant today. And the biggest example of it is this videotape that the whole world saw. The whole world saw. And yet, justice was not done.”
Obviously, this is still with us now, 29 years later, as we’ve all seen videos of George Floyd, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Daunte Wright, and so many more Black people killed by police, but only a bare minimum of accountability has been achieved yet.
The 1940s section of the movie is the most vibrant and exciting — the costumes by Ruth E. Carter are amazing, and the cinematography is rich. The scene with Black people dancing to a Black big-band is pure exuberance and joy. During these years, Malcolm gets involved in a petty crime ring, which is made to seem almost as glamorous and exciting as the dancing. Then the middle section of the film slows down with Malcolm’s prison sentence and his rise in the Nation of Islam. While the text is solid in this largest chunk of the movie, the plotting falls prey to the same problems of any biopic that it crams in a bunch of things and skims over others. There’s lots of speechifying and less character development, such as the relationship between Malcolm and his wife Betty (played by Angela Bassett), which feels like an afterthought. At least Denzel Washington delivers the speeches by embodying the historical person because of the research he put into this role. Spike Lee explained:
“All the speeches in the film were Malcolm’s actual speeches. We did the research. So we’re doing this one speech, I had my script in front of me, I’m looking at Denzel, and I’m also looking at the monitor. He’s killing it. So as I’m reading the script along with Denzel and I see that well, the speech is over, I’m going to call cut. But he keeps going, and he kept going for another five minutes until finally, the film ran out of the magazine. And the stuff he said was better than Malcolm’s words. So I finally called cut and I told Denzel, ‘That was great, but where did that come from? I mean, you went on five minutes after what was scripted.’ And he was like, ‘I don’t know.’”
Like a bookend to the ’40s dancing and heist scenes, the period of his hajj in Mecca is beautifully filmed and has a genuinely epic feel. Between the striking visuals and Malcolm X’s words, it’s quite moving and this could have been dwelled on a little bit more IMO. After that section, the film seems to rush forward to his assassination, without a very deep exploration of why the Nation of Islam wants him dead.
If you know nothing about this hugely important figure in American history, this film does give the relevant highlights through a strong performance by Denzel Washington, and I think every white person needs to watch this because it’s unlikely you’ve learned this in school. I’d add Haley’s autobiography and the PBS documentary Make It Plain for starters as well.
Ruth E. Carter had designed costumes on several of Spike Lee’s films before this, so she had a rapport with the director. Expectations were high, and according to the Hollywood Reporter, Lee told Carter: “We’re going to do Malcom X next, but I don’t want you to think about an Oscar; just do a good job.” She was nominated for her first Best Costume Oscar for this film, of course.
Talking to Atlanta Magazine, Carter explained how she got access to Malcolm X’s personal records and letters held by the Massachusetts Department of Corrections from his time in prison:
“I went to Boston, and I sat there, and I read all of his letters, and I went through his booking photos and I was able to actually connect to the person. I needed to be really acquainted with his voice in order to decide on what pajamas he’d wear to bed. When they bombed his house and he ran outside with his children, what did he have on?”
Getting to “the origin of this man who eventually became a national speaker and leader for the nation of Islam,” helped Carter design wardrobes that spanned three decades, starting during World War II. She said of the zoot suits:
“It was also known as hoodlum fashion; they had zoot suit wars. … I like to liken it to guys with drop-crotch pants. It’s the same psychology.”
On EW.com, she further described these costumes:
“I wanted to make [them] real vibrant and a little bit fantasy, in a way, to really contrast going into prison where all the color was extracted. I was excited about re-creating the zoot suits.”
After the wild, colorful ’40s period of the film, there’s the more visually drab prison section of the film. But historical details still mattered here. Malcolm X’s iconic glasses were made by Art Craft, which is now out of business, but the costume department had them recreated, according to Carter in an LA Times interview:
“The glasses are the signature. Denzel was adamant about having the exact style of glasses Malcolm X wore. I can put on a pair of Malcolm X glasses and look like Malcolm X.”
Carter told Fashionista how she traveled to Egypt to help with the scenes of Malcolm X’s pilgrimage, and she cast the extras:
“They’re becoming brothers: white, black, and Indian. I picked all the background for that scene. That part was a reward that I would never forget my entire life.”
Ruth E. Carter’s costumes are historically accurate when they need to be while also giving visual lift to parts of the story.
Have you seen Malcolm X?