Call him the Defiant One. Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Neb., and orphaned young by racist violence, Malcolm X's journey is inspirational not merely for African-Americans but for the dispossessed as a category: for all the peoples of color or economic desolation who have somehow been subtly informed over the years that America really isn't for them.
But before he was an idea, long before he was a hat or a potato chip, he was a man. And "Malcolm X," Spike Lee's 3-hour, 21-minute biographical account of the hustler who became a separatist agitator on his way to becoming a passionate humanist, has this great strength: It never loses sight of the man.
And in a funny way, Malcolm X's life, as told by Lee, projects the American dream at its purest, a Horatio Alger story to end all Horatio Alger stories -- except that the poor boy whose rise in the world it chronicles doesn't find a pot of gold but something infinitely more valuable -- he finds his soul.
But perhaps the most amazing thing about the film is how restrained it is. All this time we've been thinking Spike Lee wanted to be a bad boy when he grew up, and it turns out he wanted to be the most conservative of good boys -- David Lean.
And it turns out he has grown up.
Lee's "Malcolm X" is many things, fraught or freighted with multiple meanings as was the life it chronicles, but mostly it's solid, responsible filmmaking that transcends the limits of the bio-pic genre until it becomes something moving and resonant. No screwball theories underlie it, no screed of racial divisiveness howls out of it; it says merely, to ape a famous white boy, Ben Franklin, let us hang together or we shall surely hang separately.
To begin with, it's the shortest 3-hour, 21-minute movie ever made. Lee divides Malcolm Little's life into five stages, giving each a visual style all its own. But more importantly, it develops a coherent theory of the life, so that each stage is logically dependent on what came before and seems organic. In other words, the story is rooted in the most basic of Western narrative traditions, the notion that character is fate and that people act rationally in terms of their beliefs and always face the consequences.
It also has a weird streak of Greek tragedy, facing that old blue-eyed devil himself, hubris, the beast of pride, and Denzel Washington is able to give us a Malcolm whose fame and popularity seems to breed a subtle smugness that dooms him. The heir to the throne became bigger than the throne; then he saw through the throne; and then they killed him. He's Thomas Beckett to Elijah Muhammad's Henry II.
At first, though, all of this seems so far away. In the early part of his life, in Roxbury, outside Boston, where he was a zoot-suited bad boy, Malcolm is consumed in the quest for his own pleasures. Lee insists on seeing this part of Malcolm's life as a period of innocence. The movie has the almost childish feel of a late-'40s MGM musical, including a great dance sequence, and it's shot in gaudy primary colors. The conk -- a lye bath by which African-American hair could be chemically mutilated into a parody of Errol Flynn's lank look -- is the key image, not only of Malcolm's foolishness but of his vanity, too.
New York is darker, more sensual, more tempting. He drifts into the orbit of a West Indian gangster, well-played by Delroy Lindo. A quick image rehab has him ritzed up in the shape of an upscale Mafioso, his sleek, well-tailored suits masking the seething tendency toward violence inside.
But Washington's Malcolm really doesn't have it for this kind of heavy hitting; he's not a killer and when it appears that he's going to be the killed, he heads back to Boston for some petty burglary. Here, his self-loathing is represented by his yearning for white women, as if to escape the burden of his own blackness. He has as yet no conceptual framework against which to interpret his increasing rage.
Arrested for burglary, he spends seven years in prison; there, he meets an acolyte of Elijah Muhammad and begins the awakening. Gifts that had been repressed are discovered, painfully. The metaphor for this spiritual rebirth is a voyage through the dictionary, one word at a time.
He emerges from prison a new man, humble in appetites, intellectually alive. And he finds his true gift. Malcolm X really wasn't a political leader, in the sense of organizing and acquiring power and leading a mass movement; he certainly was no guerrilla, though he never shirked from the implication of his statements. However much he represented himself as a servant, it appears that he was serving his own ego as much as the larger movement which he embraced.
But he was a spellbinding speaker, and his eloquence was driven forward by an incisive mind that cut like a knife through the polite fog of liberal rhetoric in the early '60s. He emerged first to a public conscious as a kind of anti-Martin Luther King, a Mick Jagger to King's John Lennon, with more edge, and much more danger. All respect is due Lee for showing just how ugly Malcolm X could be, and not looking demurely away from the most loathsome few minutes of Malcolm's life, when he issued ugly utterances upon the death of President Kennedy.
Lee is equally open-eyed on the Muslims, particularly Elijah Muhammad, played as a kind of dotty imperial presence by Al Freeman Jr. Possibly he romanticizes the splendor and stability of Elijah's offices (it looks like the Harvard English department!) but his view of Muslim leadership and the factional bitterness that arose against Malcolm X as he became more and more famous feels honest.
If Lee gives the story short shrift, it is perhaps only at the end, at which an exiled Malcolm X's trip to Mecca (first time ever shown in Western cinema and worth the price of a ticket alone) and his epiphany that all men were brothers under the eyes of God is less felt than narrated. His final return to a death he knew awaited him seems the highest act of self-sacrifice. Whatever Malcolm X had or didn't have, he had guts.
Washington is brilliant. He makes the trajectory from ignorance to hate to comprehension believable, but his angry Malcolm X, seething with pride, his barbed tongue puncturing the illusions that flew before it, his hatred of the blue-eyed devils radiant as the heat off a fire, is truly an impressive creation. He seems a true prince of our disorder.
I wish Lee had dipped away from the temptation to use celebs in ironic cameos -- Al Sharpton as a street corner lecturer, William Kunstler as a tough judge -- which seems a jokey self-indulgence. Ossie Davis' funeral oration, delivered over a crescendo of images at the end, is another indulgence: We know because we've seen; telling us again is redundant. But in the end, "Malcolm X" can only be described in one word: Magnificent.
Starring Denzel Washington.
Directed by Spike Lee.
Released by Warner Bros.