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Dead at 40, Malcolm X saw, did, and experienced more than most people who live to be twice his age. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which Alex Haley wrote as a first-person narrative after interviewing Malcolm for more than two years, is the sort of book that cries out for epic movie treatment -- a long, historically significant story of both great variety and central unity.

The accuracy of some of Malcolm's recollections has been questioned, but the value of the book is the voice, shaped into greater eloquence no doubt by Haley, that it gives its subject -- impassioned, searching, sane, reflective, sometimes unexpectedly warm.

Against all probability, Spike Lee has made a massive film based on the Autobiography to which the same adjectives can be applied. The improbability of this has nothing to do with a deficit or talent -- Lee would be high on any list of America's best current filmmakers -- but with his temperament, and the compulsively didactic and often intellectually dishonest agenda, he imposes on his very important subject.

Malcolm X isn't completely free of Lee's heavy-handed bombast, but it occurs mainly on what might be called the periphery of the film -- it doesn't pollute the real subject.

Malcolm Little was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925. He spent his boyhood in East Lansing, Michigan, where he excelled at crime -- numbers running, drug dealing, pimping, and eventually burglary. Inevitably, he ended up in prison, where he was known, for his antipathy to religion, as "Satan," but where he nonetheless became a convert.

Not to Christianity, though. He joined the exclusively black Nation of Islam, a quasi-Islamic cult founded by a man who called himself Elijah Muhammed. Nation of Islam combined authentic black-American rage with a few odds and ends of Muslim theology, a protectively sexist attitude toward women, a strict disciplinary code, and an almost comically bizarre mythology about the origin of the races.

Released from prison in 1952, Malcolm Little took the name Malcolm X, signifying the African name he never knew. In twelve years he rose to become Elijah Muhammed's second in command and most powerful media spokesman, forwarding the Nation's doctrine of a separate American black state.

In the early Sixties, however, he became convinced of the speciousness and moral decrepitude of Elijah Muhammed and of the Nation and broke away to form his own, less divisive Muslim Mosque, Inc. During a 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca, he claimed he had had a vision of the oneness of all humanity. The following year Malcolm X was assassinated at a speaking engagement in New York by two black men, presumably partisans of Elijah Muhammed.

One might expect Spike Lee, who's fairly open about his distaste for white culture, to downplay Malcolm's eleventh hour (but apparently quite sincere) conversion to the idea of racial unity, just as we might expect a white director to emphasize it.

Lee does neither. He dutifully gives it the weight it deserves as a development in Malcolm's maturity -- it was important -- without going mushy on us. Perhaps the most surprising element of Malcolm X is the structural excellence of the screenplay, which Lee co-wrote with Arnold Perl (having dispensed with earlier versions by James Baldwin and David Mamet).

Lee's greatest weakness in the past has been his ineptitude as a screenwriter. Perhaps helped by his writing partner, and certainly by the preordained nature of the story (it's his first film adapted from another's work) he has rendered this complicated material into a well-organized and essentially faithful script.

Much is left out, such as the influence of Malcolm's family -- it was actually his brother Reginald who converted him to the Nation, not a prison acquaintance, as in the film. What remains is an honest attempt, directed in dense, rhythmically elegant style (and stunningly photographed by Ernest Dickerson), to give an unvarnished view of how Malcolm's experience shaped -- and kept reshaping -- his beliefs. There seems to have been an essential naivete to Malcolm which allowed him to commit utterly to whatever interested him at the moment.

This real-life figure was by his nature as protean as the Coppola/Gary Oldman Dracula was by concept. But Denzel Washington is able to maintain a coherent and energized characterization throughout all of Malcolm's incarnations. Many moments stand out from his work as superb -- his first meeting with Elijah Muhammed (eerily well played by Al Freeman, Jr.) is deeply touching. Washington also gives us the decanonizing texture we need. His race shows us the slyness, the opportunism, the combativeness that the dialogue leaves out. His performance is a major accomplishment, but the enormous cast he leads has no important weak links.

Angela Bassett is fine as Betty Shabazz -- not the throwaway role I expected it to be -- and there are strong turns by Albert Hall, Delroy Lindo, Kate Vernon (as Sophia, Malcolm's obliging white mistress), and Lee himself, who even dances passably.

There are many sharp cameos, too many to mention, but David Patrick Kelly is a standout as a nasty teacher, and on hand also are such nonactors as William Kunstler, Al Sharpton, and another that should remain a surprise.

Malcolm X is by no means free of blunders or slovenly choices. The main title, for instance, cuts between a bold Patton-style view of the American flag and the Rodney King footage. Fair enough, maybe, but hardly subtle. Lee's never really been much for subtlety.

He then compounds the ham-fistedness by having the flag consume itself in flames, until all that's left is an X. He reuses an odd effect he tried in Jungle Fever, a pedestrian seeming to hover his way down a sidewalk. It was jarring, for me, in both films. A dance at Roseland seems a little unconvincingly well choreographed. And the closing twenty minutes or so feel slightly muddled -- the finale isn't quite as emotionally devastating as it should be, until the last moments.

Other complaints could be lodged, but like these, they're quibbles. I know, I know: Spike Lee, as a person, is a loathsome little self-promoter who uses his race as impunity to spew divisive racial attitudes and vile sexism in interviews. I've also read how he bullied and guilted his way into this project at the expense of the perfectly qualified Norman Jewison. There might have been a perverse pleasure in seeing the little creep fumble a movie that meant so much to him.

But it's no use. The film has to be reviewed, not the guy, and Malcolm X is anything but a fumble -- even with a handful of minor flaws, it's a first-rate movie.

MALCOLM X
Directed by Spike Lee, based on the book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Alex Haley; with Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Al Freeman, Jr., and Albert Hall.

Rated


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