There’s a scene in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” (1992) where the title character recalls his mother being harassed by the Ku Klux Klan in Nebraska while pregnant with him. They shatter her windows with rifles as she frantically pleads to be left alone with her children. A white band of KKK members cover the skyline, riding off into the moon. One of the most visually striking scenes in the film, it immediately sets the context into which Malcolm was born, one that he’d spend his life combating.
The film, based on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” by Alex Haley and Malcolm X, with a script written by Spike Lee and Arnold Perl, faced similar turbulence because of its subject matter. Lee was unable to obtain proper studio funding for the project, resorting to a widespread fundraising campaign targeting well-known Black celebrities and philanthropists, eventually releasing a book detailing the struggle. But what made the film much more than a dramatic documentation about a popular figure were its performances. Denzel Washington, then a rising actor after turns in “Glory” and “Mo’ Better Blues,” approached the role with a fierce eye for mastery. Even as new information about Malcolm’s life has been unveiled over the years, Washington’s portrayal of the man still resonates with a certain truth. His ability to deliver Malcolm’s diction, his body language, his confident, assured demeanor when swarmed by reporters, or when addressing a massive group of followers in a protest, all comes through.
Lee also does an amazing job of capturing the different worlds that Malcolm inhabited throughout his life, making them part of a stunning continuum of experiences. One scene recalls his time as a popular lindy-hop dancer in Boston. Bodies flip, slide, and dip between each other in colorful zoot suits and dresses, while a band plays a roaring set. There, Malcolm comes alive with love interest Laura (Theresa Randle) in one of the most well-choreographed dance scenes in film. By the end of it, the audience has experienced this movement, and continues on the journey with Malcolm.
Lee couples these more joyous scenes with ones of intense pain, and a certain recognition of an eventual doom. We are present with Malcolm as he crawls around the floor of a jail cell, when he addresses the small gathering of Muslims as a new minister, and even when he bears the pain of his first “conk.” Malcolm is at his best and at his worst in this film. Washington plays him as a person, and not as a “hero” or a “figure.”
In recent conversations about upcoming biopics, including who will be cast, and who will direct, a closer look at this film could provide insight into capturing the life and work of popular figures. Beyond the physical likeness that is at times important, there’s a commitment that an actor must make to studying and entering into the mind and world of the person they’re portraying.
Denzel Washington did this, setting into motion a trajectory that has cemented him as one of the world’s most talented performers. There’s a way that the “figure” must be dramatized, not as a saint, but as a human being, and a world that must be created by the director, that the audience readily enters. In all of these aspects, “Malcolm X” succeeded and stands as one of the great biopics, and films, in current cinema.
Other than “Malcolm X,” what are some of the best (and worst) casting decisions made for a Black biopic?
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