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'Malcolm X' Revisited

by Nijla Mumin
March 11, 2013 1:54 PM
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Warner Bros. 'Malcolm X'

There's a scene in Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" (1992) where the title character recalls his mother being harassed by the Ku Klux Klan in Nebraska while pregnant with him. They shatter her windows with rifles as she frantically pleads to be left alone with her children. A white band of KKK members cover the skyline, riding off into the moon. One of the most visually striking scenes in the film, it immediately sets the context into which Malcolm was born, one that he'd spend his life combating.

The film, based on "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" by Alex Haley and Malcolm X, with a script written by Spike Lee and Arnold Perl, faced similar turbulence because of its subject matter. Lee was unable to obtain proper studio funding for the project, resorting to a widespread fundraising campaign targeting well-known Black celebrities and philanthropists, eventually releasing a book detailing the struggle. But what made the film much more than a dramatic documentation about a popular figure were its performances. Denzel Washington, then a rising actor after turns in "Glory" and "Mo' Better Blues," approached the role with a fierce eye for mastery. Even as new information about Malcolm's life has been unveiled over the years, Washington's portrayal of the man still resonates with a certain truth. His ability to deliver Malcolm's diction, his body language, his confident, assured demeanor when swarmed by reporters, or when addressing a massive group of followers in a protest, all comes through.

Lee also does an amazing job of capturing the different worlds that Malcolm inhabited throughout his life, making them part of a stunning continuum of experiences. One scene recalls his time as a popular lindy-hop dancer in Boston. Bodies flip, slide, and dip between each other in colorful zoot suits and dresses, while a band plays a roaring set. There, Malcolm comes alive with love interest Laura (Theresa Randle) in one of the most well-choreographed dance scenes in film. By the end of it, the audience has experienced this movement, and continues on the journey with Malcolm.

Lee couples these more joyous scenes with ones of intense pain, and a certain recognition of an eventual doom. We are present with Malcolm as he crawls around the floor of a jail cell, when he addresses the small gathering of Muslims as a new minister, and even when he bears the pain of his first "conk." Malcolm is at his best and at his worst in this film. Washington plays him as a person, and not as a "hero" or a "figure."

In recent conversations about upcoming biopics, including who will be cast, and who will direct, a closer look at this film could provide insight into capturing the life and work of popular figures. Beyond the physical likeness that is at times important, there's a commitment that an actor must make to studying and entering into the mind and world of the person they're portraying.

Denzel Washington did this, setting into motion a trajectory that has cemented him as one of the world's most talented performers. There's a way that the "figure" must be dramatized, not as a saint, but as a human being, and a world that must be created by the director, that the audience readily enters. In all of these aspects, "Malcolm X" succeeded and stands as one of the great biopics, and films, in current cinema.

Other than “Malcolm X,” what are some of the best (and worst) casting decisions made for a Black biopic?

XFINITY On Demand™ is currently featuring "Malcolm X." Learn more, and join the celebration of Black entertainment at

Editor’s Note: Shadow and Act partnered with XFINITY to celebrate Black entertainment. Be sure to visit, a unique digital community built around the love of Black entertainment. Shadow and Act hopes to enrich this community and provide a launching pad for insightful discussion. Look to Shadow and Act for features and content examining and exploring key themes and topics that run throughout the history of Black entertainment.

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  • Jeff W. | March 18, 2013 3:46 PMReply

    I never bought Will Smith as Muhammad Ali. It was a nice try, but Smith lacked the gravitas for the role. Jaime Foxx was pretty good as Ray Charles.

    However, though it wasn't a bio pic, Eddie Murphy killed it as his James Brown stand-in. James "Thunder" Early.

    "Malcolm X" is brilliant and probably Spike's best. Even better than "Do the Right Thing."

  • G.B. | March 18, 2013 2:17 PMReply

    Jeffrey Wright - Basquiat

  • madmonq | March 16, 2013 5:29 PMReply

    I think many of Spike's films aren't that great, Malcolm X being an exception. Personally I think it's the reason for so many biopics in the past 15 years, showing how well it can be done. The subsequent success of "A Beautiful Mind" as a result.

  • urbanauteur | March 15, 2013 4:49 PMReply

    I cant but think of President Barack Obama invited to dinner at the Huxtables, because i don't See Malcohm's REVOLUTIONARY SIDE at the end of life, especially with the honorable Kwade Nkrumah,Shirley Dubois who were his his intellectual spark/elders in their 1st organized cadre circle.Malcolm X aka El Malik Shabazz last name sake was OMOWALE(the son has returned).

  • deecreative | March 13, 2013 8:44 PMReply

    Malcolm X is one of the top movies of the 20th century, not sure who has read the book but the movie is literally the autobiography come to life! The opening scene of the movie is on the first stories told in the autobiography. Spike Lee got it right with this movie, I still feel the movie is owed professional acknowledgement but the people who know, KNOW. There is NO ONE that could have played Malcolm except Denzel, Denzel was literally Malcolm X for 3 hours! One the few movies that can be watched for 3 hours and you will not care.

  • IntrospectiveMan | March 13, 2013 5:03 PMReply

    I think Ving Rhymes was a surprising, refreshingly out-the-box, and inspired casting choice as Don King in "Only In America".

    In regards to "Malcolm X", on the supporting actor tip, Al Freeman's performance as Elijah Muhammad? Completely slept on.

  • Darryl | March 12, 2013 7:37 PMReply

    Malcom X is the greatest biopic picture ever done. It's in my top 5 films of all time. Everything worked for it, the direction, script, acting, cinematography, production design, costume design, music. It is a masterpiece.

  • jeftcg | March 13, 2013 3:04 PM

    Spike, I'm going to have to disagree with you there. I know you've got a man-crush on Big DW, but face it, you shouldn't have been in that movie. You're presence alone reduced the "masterpiece" status. Not even to mention (although I am) that 55% of your three-hour story story is dedicated to the relationship with the white girl. This site is very forgiving, but come ON: that movie is B-List at best. Without Big D in it, it's C-List. Cheers, mate!

  • Monique a Williams | March 12, 2013 7:58 AMReply

    Great piece!

  • Adam Scott Thompson | March 12, 2013 12:04 AMReply

    "I truly believe that if ever a state social agency destroyed a family, it destroyed ours."

  • CareyCarey | March 11, 2013 11:24 PMReply

    Excellent analysis! Well-written, concise and non-biased.

    "Beyond the physical likeness that is at times important, there's a commitment that an actor must make to studying and entering into the mind and world of the person they're portraying. There's a way that the "figure" must be dramatized, not as a saint, but as a human being, and a world that must be created by the director"

    In my opinion, the conversation could stop, or start, right there. Denzel's commitment to many of his characters are testaments to his dedication and professional approach in capturing/wearing the life and work of popular figures, i.e., Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, Bleek Gilliam ( Mo' Better Blues), Frank Lucas ( American Gangster) and Whip Whitaker (Flight).

    More importantly, as you pointed out, the collaboration with the right director with the right vision, background and insight, is essential. Without question, Spike Lee was the right director for Malcolm X. I am reminded of the discussions on whether or not there are some African American stories a white director should not touch and why? Well, waxing poetic with a dash of political correctness could be my response, however, I'll simply present Malcolm X and Eve's Bayou as my answer. To embelish my opinion, I could add Menace II Society and Carl Franklin's "Devil In A Blue Dress" and "One False Move".

    Having said that, everything... EVERYTHING revolves around the performance of the actor(s) and their ability to embody all the nuances of the characters in question.

    Sooooo, that said... my selections for the best (and worst) casting decisions made for a Black biopic?

    BEST: Jamie Foxx (Ray). Denzel (Malcolm X and Hurricane). Lawrence Fishburne ( What's Love Got To Do With It and "Thurgood Marshall" ). Angela Bassett (What's Love Got To Do With It). Jeffrey Wright "Muddy Waters" and Eamonn Walker "Howlin' Wolf" (Cadilac Records).

    WORST: 1. Everybody in Betty and Coretta... YICKS!
    2. Everybody in the awful "Notorious"... Sufferin' Succotash!... except, maybe, both actors who played Biggie.
    3. The cast of The Jacksons: An American Dream. WOW! Of special note, Angela Bassett killed Tina Turner, but it appears Katherine Jackson, Biggie's momma and Coretta Scott King were a bit of a stretch, for her.

  • CareyCarey | March 13, 2013 3:55 PM

    Donella, I agree. Although I didn't have a boat load of reference to the person Howlin' Wolf, Eamonn Walker's portrayal grabbed me. As your implied, he seems to immerse himself in all his characters. I am reminded of Idris Elba's "Legacy". I wouldn't champion the movie, however, Eamonn's performance was noteworthy. In fact, in that movie, I believe he taught Idris a thing or two.

    Speaking of Idris, although many believe he's the next coming of Jesus Christ, it's interesting to note that his name never appears in any of these "best of" conversations. But maybe all goodbyes are not gone. I've noticed that he's the executive producer and lead actor in Rainforest Films's next film "No Good Deed". We know that Rainforest does an excellent job of marketing and promotion, so we shall see how this shakes out? They did turn a so-so movie (Think Like A Man) into a huge box office success, so who knows what magic they can conjure up for Idris and the film?

    Having said that, I'd like to see your best and worst black biopic's or movies in general. You know, I just wanna see where you're coming from.

  • Donella | March 13, 2013 2:47 PM

    I like your selections too, especially Eamonn Walker as Howlin Wolf. That guy's in everything he does!

  • SAVANNAH MORGAN | March 11, 2013 9:11 PMReply

    My personal best:
    Diana Ross- "Lady Sings The Blues"
    LEON - THE TEMPTATIONS "David Ruffin"
    Angela Bassett/Laurence Fishbourne - Whats Love Got to Do With It -Ike & Tina
    Columbus Short- Cadillac Records - Lil Walter

  • Donella | March 13, 2013 2:45 PM

    I agree with all your selections, but like Carey, I'm partial to Eamon Walker as Howlin Wolf. My heart beat fast every time he came onscreen.

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