Film Review: Malcolm X (1992)

Also known as: X (poster title)
Release Date: November 18th, 1992
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Arnold Perl, Spike Lee
Based on: The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X, Alex Haley
Music by: Terence Blanchard
Cast: Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman Jr., Delroy Lindo, Spike Lee, Theresa Randle, Kate Vernon, Christopher Plummer, Lonette McKee, Giancarlo Esposito, Wendell Pierce, Roger Guenveur Smith, Debi Mazar, Karen Allen, Peter Boyle, David Patrick Kelly, Mary Alice, Nicholas Turturro, Michael Imperioli, John David Washington, Ossie Davis

Largo International, JVC Entertainment Networks, 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks, Warner Bros., 202 Minutes

Review:

“[Witnessing Malcolm’s control over a mob] That’s too much power for one man to have.” – Captain Green

Every great director has their magnum opus and this is Spike Lee’s.

Malcolm X is pretty perfect from top-to-bottom and for a film that is nearly three and a half hours, it mostly moves at a really good pace. I thought that the first act was too drawn out but it takes up less than an hour of running time and the film really finds its groove once Malcolm goes to prison and first encounters the lessons and ideas around The Nation of Islam.

From that point forward, this is a truly exceptional motion picture that is bolstered by the legendary performance of Denzel Washington. In fact, despite him winning the Academy Award for Training Day, I would say that this is the best performance of his career.

Beyond Washington, everyone else in this film is superb from the smallest parts to the largest. There really isn’t a weak link in the entire cast and Lee did a phenomenal job in picking who he did for each role.

This also boasts the best cinematography out of all of Spike Lee’s movies. Sure, he has a stupendous eye and employs wonderful visuals in every film but this felt so genuine and rich. It was like a true time capsule back to the 1940s through 1960s and nothing about it felt staged or inauthentic.

Having read the book, years ago, I’ve always seen this as the most perfect interpretation of it. In fact, if anyone were to try and attempt a Malcolm X biopic in the future, I don’t know how they could really make anything better or even as close to great as this is. As far as I know, it’s never been attempted and frankly, it shouldn’t be.

Watching this, it was hard not having my mind try to compare the incidents and the social climate in the 1960s to today. A lot of people love quoting Malcom X and for good reason. However, I think that a lot of people who cite him don’t fully grasp the context and cherry pick what fits their narrative. I think it’s important to understand the man’s full journey and to see what he went through, what he learned and how he applied all of that to his actions and his message.

Unfortunately, Malcolm was gunned down in the prime of his life and we never got to see how he would’ve continue to evolve and how he would’ve worked together with other black leaders and leaders of all races in the following decades.

Malcolm’s death was an absolute tragedy but his life is certainly worth knowing and celebrating. With that, this film is really special in how it captured the man, his personal struggles and growth. Spike Lee and Denzel Washington made a biographical picture that is as good as they get.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: Spike Lee’s other films of the late ’80s and into the ’90s.

Film Review: Do The Right Thing (1989)

Release Date: May 19th, 1989 (Cannes)
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Spike Lee
Music by: Bill Lee, Public Enemy
Cast: Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, John Savage, Roger Guenveur Smith, Rosie Perez, Joie Lee, Steve White, Martin Lawrence, Robin Harris, Paul Benjamin, Frankie Faison, Samuel L. Jackson, Steve Park, Frank Vincent, Nicholas Turturro, Miguel Sandoval

40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, Universal Pictures, 120 Minutes

Review:

In the summer of 1989 I was in Brooklyn visiting family for a few weeks. Being a big film buff, even at ten years-old, I had already seen every big summer movie that year. My cousin was driving us around and he asked if I wanted to see a movie. I did. He asked what I wanted to see. Thinking he would say “no”, I still replied “Do The Right Thing.” Being the cool nineteen year-old kid that he was, he smirked and said, “Well, alright.”

Leading up to my seeing Do The Right Thing in a movie theater in Brooklyn, not far from where the movie took place, I was mesmerized by the trailers and footage I saw on television. Living in Southwest Florida, I didn’t have a lot to do during summer days, except hang with friends, play video games or watch TV. I often times spent hours watching a cable channel called Movietime, which was actually E! Entertainment Television before it re-branded itself. On that channel, they always showed trailers, over and over again, and also went behind the scenes on films in development or coming out. It was a cool channel that taught a young film fan a lot about the industry and art he loved. But it is there, where I saw trailers and other footage for Do The Right Thing. Something about it just drew me in.

I always cherished the experience of seeing this film, so close to where it was made, at a time when I hadn’t quite experienced a real adult film in the theater. It was exciting but at the same time, it was a lot more than that. Do The Right Thing had a profound effect on me and how I saw other people. When I watch it now, much later in life, it is a reminder of that experience and the lessons I learned from it. It also is one of the first films that I saw to really cultivate my love for the art of motion pictures and filmmaking itself. This, alongside Cinema Paradiso, made me see movies differently.

Having just revisited Do The Right Thing for the first time in several years, it is kind of sad. Not because of the film itself but because it took away some of my optimism in regards to people. When I saw it was a kid, I truly believed that society was headed in the right direction. I thought that as time rolled on, the struggle of black people and the prejudices in America would improve. Yet, this film is almost thirty years old and its message is maybe even more relevant today than it was in 1989. Will it be even more relevant in another 30 years?

Spike Lee did a fantastic job with Do The Right Thing and it is, still to this day, my favorite Lee film (Malcolm X is a very close second). Maybe it is due to the experience it gave me when I should have been too young to have to see the world for what it is. But out of all his films, this one has the strongest message not just for African-Americans but for all Americans. And again, it is still a message that needs to be heard today.

The cinematography is stellar. The film really captures the people, the scenery and Brooklyn life in that era. The technique of using first-person perspective, which gets more prevalent as the film progresses and racial tensions increase, is masterfully shot and presented. The breaking of the fourth wall, as characters’ inner monologues come to life, directed at the audience, is effective in understanding their deepest inner prejudices and in helping escalate the tension from a narrative standpoint.

The use of Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” throughout the film is perfect and really gives an anthem to the attitudes of many of the characters. It represents, what this film, at its core, is all about. The character of Radio Raheem was the perfect vessel within the film to deliver the song to the masses, as he walked up and down the street, all day, blasting the song from his radio. He wasn’t just a vessel for the message though, he was also a symbol, a physical embodiment of it. Bill Nunn did a fine job as Raheem and made him into an iconic figure for many.

There are several really standout performances in the film. I think a lot of props need to go to Giancarlo Esposito as Buggin’ Out. Most people know Esposito as the villainous Gus from Breaking Bad. It was his role in this film, that put him on the map for me. Then years later, when I did see him on Breaking Bad, playing one of the greatest villains in television history, I was ecstatic because this was a guy who I had followed since seeing him on the big screen as a ten year-old in a Brooklyn movie theater. I’ve always thought Esposito was an underutilized actor but those who regularly work with him know his talent. In Do The Right Thing, Esposito is so committed to the role that he really stands out above everyone else. And we’re talking about a movie that has Samuel Jackson, Rosie Perez, John Turturro, Robin Harris, Frankie Faison, Ossie Davis, Danny Aiello, Martin Lawrence, Frank Vincent and so many other faces that own the screen when they are on it.

Roger Guenveur Smith’s performance as Smiley is also superb. You couldn’t not feel for the guy and when he lost his shit, you were right there with him. It’s also heartbreaking to see how others in the film treat him, even his friends, due to his handicap. Smith  has played a lot of great characters over the years but Smiley is the one I most fondly remember.

There are few films that illustrate a sense of human brotherhood as much as Do The Right Thing. While it shows cultural clashes and tensions boiling over into violence, it also provides hope and displays a lot of wisdom. Most of the characters try to maintain order but the few who keep pushing each other bring the whole neighborhood to its breaking point. And then the cops show up to screw it up even more.

Do The Right Thing isn’t just a great film, it is an important film, maybe even more so today than in 1989.

Rating: 9.5/10