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Malcolm X.

Seeing Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" at an opening day showing in a New York neighborhood theater was far more exciting than a private screening for critics. The line was dangerously long.

Not surprisingly, students and retirees were prominent among those waiting to get in, and others told of rear-ranging their work schedules -- or taking time off -- in order to see the movie as soon as possible.

Although the majority in line were African-Americans, the group was also a fair cross section of New Yorkers, who bantered and recalled their experiences in reading Malcolm's autobiography. This made it easier to endure the cold and the worry about whether we'd get tickets before the picture started. It fostered that rare kind of excitement in which a movie becomes more than a brief entertainment or a private aesthetic pleasure, but a tumultuous public event.

Under such conditions, of course, it's bard to reserve the critical distance needed for disinterested response. Inside the theater, some talked back to the over a flashback to the firebombing of Malcolm's childhood home and voiced an "Amen" to his later denunciations of white oppression.

It would be easy to complain that 199 minutes is long for a movie, but Spike Lee had to compress material in order to get as much of The Autobiography of Malcolm X into it as he did.

Most of the film's limitations are built into the biographical genre. One can never get bored, however, because Denzel Washington is before the camera throughout, a charismatic presence, conveying both the strength and the charm of Malcolm, forcing one to give serious attention to even his harshest criticisms of white liberals.

Even the many critics who have been alienated by Spike Lee's abrasive talent for self-promotion will have to concede that the movie faithfully follows the autobiography. It is inevitably didactic but mercifully without intrusive editorializing by the director.

Probably only someone as aggressively determined as Lee could have succeeded in getting this movie made. In the middle of production he had to turn to such wealthy African-American celebrities as Bill Cosby and Michael Jordan to raise additional funds to complete it.

"Malcolm X" begins with a jolt, an American flag burning as a voice-over condemns the white man as "the greatest murderer on earth," but the movie does not impose any ideological straitjacket on Malcolm's career.

As we follow his development from a naive young man getting his hair conked in a Boston barbershop to street hustler and thief, defiant prisoner, convert to the Nation of Islam, feared and beloved spokesman of black liberation, pilgrim to Mecca and martyr, there are many unanswered questions and we are forced to make up our own minds.

More important than any Oscar awards -- which Denzel Washington and the movie deserve -- Lee deserves our thanks for sending us back to the autobiography, the tapes of Malcolm's speeches and his other writings, challenging both whites and African-Americans to respond to uniquely powerful voice.

The audience with which I saw the movie responded with laughter to the zoot-suited Malcolm lindy-hopping in Boston, and photographer Ernest Dickerson captures all the colors to be found in a riotous sequence in the Roseland Ballroom.

The fact that Malcolm eagerly follows the lead of a street hustler named Shorty (Lee himself) and soon succumbs to the lures of Sophia, an all-too-available blonde, prepares us to follow his descent into drugs, violence and crime. The film does not whitewash his criminality, though it insists that the judge gave Malcolm an extra stiff sentence because of his relations with white women.

The visual tone becomes gray for the prison sequences, which dramatize Malcolm's refusal to cooperate with authorities. Despite his courage, he is at the end of his resources when he encounters a fellow prisoner named Baines (Albert Hall) who teaches him to be proud of his African heritage and recruits him for the Nation of Islam.

Postprison scenes, dramatizing Malcolm's rise as a follower of Elijah Muhammad's separatist teachings, benefit from documentary footage of actual press conferences, and the quick alternation of live color action shots and black-and-white televised film clips has a hypnotic effect.

The movie does not caricature the Nation of Islam, even though Malcolm eventually becomes disillusioned when he learns that Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman, Jr.) has been having liaisons with some of his young secretaries. We see bow some of the other ministers grow jealous of Malcolm's growing prominence, and the movie assigns responsibility for Malcolm's 1965 assassination both to members of the Nation, including Baines, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Despite the accepted wisdom against too much talk in movies, the scenes of Malcolm's street-speaking in Harlem always hold our attention. What got the most applause in the theater was the sequences in which Malcolm marched his followers to the local police station in an orderly protest and refused to leave until they were able to bring out a black man who had been brutalized by the police and get him into an ambulance.

On the other hand, scenes of the developing relationship with his wife-to-be Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett), an attractive young nurse and Muslim convert, slow down the development and seem too close to Hollywood convention.

Near the end is a powerful sense of danger and near-inevitability as Malcolm is forced to hide in a hotel room and try to phone reassurance to his distraught wife, but the pacing of most of the movie is surprisingly leisurely, and flashbacks to traumatic details of childhood are inserted too quickly and with frequent psychological implausibility.

Lee tacks on a coda in when Nelson Mandela speaks to schoolchildren in South Africa of Malcolm's ongoing significance. What he says is true, but unnecessary, given what the movie has already accomplished. There is a terrible sense of loss, especially in view of what we have seen of Malcolm's continued growth.

In a movie about Lincoln, the horror at the Ford Theatre would at least be softened to some degree by the recognition that the Civil War was over, the Union preserved. But there is no real way to conclude the movie of Malcolm X after the massacre at the Audubon Ballroom -- in front of his wife and children, just before his 40th birthday -- since the union between black and white in America is far from achieved.

The movie opening coincided with the annual Merton lecture at Columbia, where I was privileged that night to hear Robert Coles. One of the questions to which Coles responded movingly was about Malcolm's significance. Coles spoke of his two conversions, suggesting that most of us are lucky to have had one.

This helped me understand that "Malcolm X" ignores the spiritual dimension of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabbazz, Malcolm's Muslim name. It wouldn't be easy to capture in film, but when Malcolm begins to turn his life around in jail, all we, see is that he begins to use his intelligence -- he studies the dictionary and stops letting the white man dictate what gets into his head. He surrenders -- but to Baines, and ultimately Elijah Muhammad, not et to Allah.

Later, when he goes to Mecca, Lee captures the pageantry, the outer forms of the ceremony and Malcolm's acceptance by Muslims from every country, but remains oblivious to his inner experience.

I would urge everyone to see and discuss "Malcolm X," an achievement of which the director has every right to be proud. But in omitting the meaning of Malcolm's conversions, he has reduced his hero's significance and ignored a key element of African-American reality.
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Author:Cunneen, Joseph
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Dec 4, 1992
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