Happy weekend. I was much more tired than I thought after last week. I ended up sleeping in significantly later than I have in months. A combination of being busy at work and pandemic fatigue is getting to me. With my morning a complete wash, it cut into the time I had available for a movie today. That combined with the film I did watch’s length meant that even though it was a weekend, I only have on movie to talk about today.
Malcolm X (1992, Dir. Spike Lee)
Biopics have an inherent flaw that needs to be addressed in their creation: the subjects of the film live long lives with countless important moments to explore. Even for subjects like Malcolm X who had their life tragically cut short, there’s no way to do them any service while compacting them into a 100-minute runtime. This leads many biopics to feel like a string of major events with little through line. The best biopics tend to work by embracing the limited time and telling a shorter story. Spike Lee decided to address the shortcoming in a different direction. Instead of telling a smaller, representative story, he took over 200 minutes to give X’s story the time it deserved.
In theory Malcolm X still succumbs to the issue with biopics. Even at the extended runtime, it’s still not possible to do the man’s entire life the justice it deserves, but the film’s length does give it more power than the alternative. The film feels like more than just a sequence of vignettes in the man’s life. While after watching it, I may only have a surface level of knowledge of where Malcolm the man comes from, I feel like the film succeeds in it’s telling of where Malcolm’s beliefs come from. For a man like he was, that’s the greatest thing Lee could have accomplished.
As important as Lee’s directorial voice was to the success of Malcolm X, the film could not work without a standout performance in the titular role. Thankfully a peak young Denzel Washington was available to play the civil rights icon. Washington was three years removed from his first Oscar win in Glory (1989, Dir. Edward Zwick), and I’m convince the proximity to it is the only reason that he didn’t win his second portraying X. Washington’s impressive range was a necessity to tell the full story of X’s life. He is equally believable as an 18-year-old coke dealer and 39- year-old Muslim minister. Lee as a director can tend to feel a little overstuffed, but Washington’s depiction of one of the greatest and most important men in history keeps even the three and a half hour epic feeling tight and important.