Picks and Pans Review: Malcolm X

updated 11/23/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/23/1992 01:00AM

Denzel Washington, Delroy Lindo, Al Freeman Jr., Albert Hall, Angela Bassett, Kate Vernon

In his worshipful film biography of 1960s black activist Malcolm X, director Spike Lee buys uncritically into Malcolm's "all white men are devils" rhetoric. The opening credits roll over a burning American flag while Washington intones a list of while Americans' "sins," which includes "swine eating." There is not one sympathetic white character in the film, and Lee presents Malcolm's approving response to the murder of President Kennedy without even a hint of reproof.

Ironically this confrontational attitude may make whites stay away and miss seeing Lee's vivid re-creations of the white violence and cultural dominance that made Malcolm an embittered black supremacist. The incidents range from the brutal—a Klan attack on Malcolm's parents in Nebraska—to the subtle—the painful "conking" treatments Malcolm underwent to straighten his hair.

Washington lends his considerable strength and dignity to the role, making Malcolm's charisma believable, even though Lee glosses over the intellectual and emotional bases for Malcolm's 180-degree changes—from small-time crook and pimp to austere Black Muslim, from devout follower of Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad to freelance activist. Lee, who with customary perspective has already declared this the most important movie of the 20th century, takes note of the changes but never closes in on what Malcolm was feeling.

Lindo lends strength as the West Indian hustler who is Malcolm's mentor in crime after he moves to Harlem from Boston in the '40s, and Hall humanizes his role as the Michigan con who converts Malcolm to Islam in prison, then becomes his biggest enemy within the movement. Freeman is Elijah Muhammad, who seems almost senile and naive, while Vernon is insubstantial as a rich young white woman who seduces the not-too-reluctant Malcolm, and Bassett is phlegmatic as Malcolm's wife. Lee's smartest casting decision was minimizing his own onscreen presence in a role as Malcolm's buddy Shorty. (There are distracting, brief appearances by Karen Allen as a welfare worker, Peter Boyle as a cop, lawyer William Kunstler as a judge and Rev. Al Sharpton as a sidewalk orator.)

More crucially, Lee lets his reverence for Malcolm sterilize the facts. There is no allusion, for instance, to the more extreme views of the Black Muslims. And Lee ignores the animosity between Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr., other than having Malcolm blast "chicken-pecking Uncle Toms" less militant than he. Lee's lionization of a man with such a debatable social legacy raises more questions than it answers. (Thurgood Marshall said of Malcolm, "Tell me one thing he did to free black people or lift the level of their lives.")

But then Lee and his cowriter, Arnold Perl, based the film on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which Malcolm wrote with Alex Haley. Still, that fascinating 1965 book was enlightening without being alienating. That can't be said for this movie. (PG-13)

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