The film Malcolm X and its director Spike Lee were, for the most part, universally hailed by critics for the grace in which Malcolm's remarkable life was brought to the big screen. What critics found most noteworthy in Lee's biography was how the story was told in a very traditional, linear fashion; and how the pace and style of the film corresponded with the metamorphosis of Malcolm X, from hustling "Detroit Red" to the inspirational Muslim leader, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. After Lee's inciting remarks prior to its opening, many critics expected a more in-your-face portrayal in Malcolm X. Though the film is forceful and moving, people were surprised to find how accesible Lee makes Malcolm to a mainstream audience. Many of the reviews draw comparisions to Richard Attenborough's 1982, Academy Award-winning biopic, Ghandi. According to critics, what Ben Kingsley did for Ghandi, Denzel Washington does for Malcolm. Across the board, critics lauded Washington for his performance and proclaimed it the strong foundation upon which the film rests. Negative criticism included the treatment of women in the film, or lack thereof, and the omission of certain important people in Malcolm's life, including his siblings, who are personified in the fictional character, Baines.
Alexander, Karen. Rev. of Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee. Sight and SoundMarch 1993: 46.
Praises the film for the ease with which one can sit through the three hour and twenty minute running time and for the performance of Denzel Washington. That being said, Alexander believes that the films low point is its portrayal of women. She feels that Angela Bassett's Betty Shabazz is "sadly underused" and that the non-Islamic females were portrayed as "prostitutes and lost sheep."
Ansen, David. Rev. of Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee. Newsweek 16 November 1992: 74.
Calls Malcolm X "big, ambitious, [and] fascinating." Ansen feels that the story can be read as a man searching for a father, as Malcolm progresses throughout his life and learns its lessons at the hands of many strong men. The entertainment of the film is in its first 1/3, where we find Malcolm as a street hustler. Ansen calls Denzel Washington's performance "quietly majestic" and applauds Lee for bringing a complicated and confused man of words to a mass audience who is used to seeing epic heroes of action. In conclusion he says: "Lee and company have performed a powerful service: they have brought Malcolm X very much alive again, both as man and myth."
Bracey, John, and August Meier. Rev. of Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee. Journal of American History December 1993: 1197.
Bracey and Meier, in reviewing Malcolm X from a historical perspective, have some interesting things to say about Lee's attempt to be as true to the Autobiography of Malcolm X as possible. They say that "The strength of [the film] lies in its portrayal of Malcolm X's growth and transformation as an individual rather than in an adequate placement of him in the political and social context that enabled him to achieve such a prominent role in American society during the early 1960s." Some of the historical context that bothered them was the omission of Malcolm's immediate family throughout most of the film. The influence of his brothers and sisters brought Malcolm to Islam, but all these characters were portrayed by the fictional character Baines in a way that doesn't due justice to the profound way they helped Malcolm change his life. Other historical issues involve the transformations of Malcolm's racial stance. Lee oversimplifies this in order to make Malcolm seem more pro-white at the movie's ending. The review concludes: "In short, as impressive as it is, the film should not be used as a substitute for the laborious work necessary to produce a version of Malcolm's life satisfying to historians. As a filmmaker, Spike Lee has done his job and done it well. As historians who would understand fully Malcolm X and his times, our work is still very much before us."
Canby, Vincent. "'Malcolm X,' as Complex as Its Subject." Rev. of Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee. New York Times 18 November 1992: 19.
Canby credits Lee's work as a well done, ambitious film that was "fraught with pitfalls." He applauds Lee for an approach uncommon in his other films: "Mr. Lee's method is almost self-effacing. He never appears to stand in between the material and the audience. He himself does not preach. There are no carefully inserted speeches designed to tell the audience what it should think. He lets Malcolm speak and act for himself. The moments of confrontational melodrama, something for which Mr. Lee has a particular gift, are quite consciously underplayed." His criticizes the film for its sometimes lack of "free-flowing energy" but recognizes that it is more the result of the genre and subject matter than a lack of spirit on Lee's part.
Ebert, Roger. "Malcolm X." Rev. of Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee. Chicago Sun-Times 18 November 1992 http://www.suntimes.com/ebert_reviews/1992/11/790018.html
Calls Malcolm X "one of the great screen biographies, celebrating the whole sweep of an American life that began in sorrow and bottomed out on the streets and in prison before its hero reinvented himself." Ebert praises the film for its role in educating and inspiring its audience. In comparing it to Ghandi he says: "the movie gains force as it moves along; the early scenes could come from the lives of many men, but the later scenes show a great original personality coming into focus." Ebert praises Denzel Washington for his portrayal: "He never seems to be trying for an effect, and yet he is always convincing." Al Freeman Jr. is also praised as "quietly amazing" for his portrayal of Elijah Muhammad.
Romney, Jonathan. Rev. of Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee. New Statesman & Society 5 March 1993: 34.
This review is mixed at best. In juxtaposing the film with the hype surrounding its social and political importance, Romney feels that the former falls way short of the latter. He criticizes Lee for cramming too much of what he calls "directional hedonism" in the early part of the film, while opting for the more sparse and serious approach to the second half. He commends the film for its power, but says that it is "hamstrung by its own seriousness and intelligence." He compares it to JFK: "Oliver Stone's film is truly great because it's dumb - in all its hyperventilating paranoid idiocy, it can't stop giving you food for thought. But Malcolm X never quite makes you feel that it's fun to think: it commands massive respect, but turns back too deliberately on that hedonistic complexity that always made Spike Lee America's most challenging and frustrating director. Here, he has simply become the most frustrating."
Sterritt, David. Rev. of Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee. Christian Science Monitor 18 November 1992: 14.
Finds that "Malcolm X could not be more traditional in its approach" to telling his story. This is in stark contrast to the hype that preceded its opening. He says: "It's hardly the explosive experience that the movie's advance publicity -- or Lee's gadfly remarks on its social importance -- have led moviegoers to anticipate." Praises Lee's filmmaking for developing themes and messages through straightforward storytelling. A lot of the praise goes to Denzel Washington's performance for keeping the movie "alive and absorbing" in spite of its predictablity and length. The supporting cast is also credited, especially Al Freeman Jr. as Elijah Muhammad, who Sterritt calls "utterly convincing."
Turan, Kenneth. Rev. of Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee. Los Angeles Times 18 November 1992: calender/p.1.
Turan is struck most by how making such an accomplished film about an inflammatory man in such a classical and familiar fashion, Spike Lee is striving for an effect. "By turning traditional filmmaking inside out, by using familiar forms to make as incendiary a thinker as Malcolm palatable, Lee may in fact be more subversive than he has ever been before." He compares this to the way in which Ghandi was brought to the big screen. The rest of the film is praised for its cinematography and terrific acting, calling Denzel Washington's performance "heroic." He concludes his review by saying: "One of the most interesting aspects of Malcolm X is how adroitly Lee, mainly by staying straightforward and cliche-free, has avoided many of the pitfalls its story presented."
Bernard, Jami. Rev. of Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee. New York Post 18 November 1992: 21.
Brown, Georgia. Rev. of Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee. Village Voice 26 January 1993: 56.
Denby, David. Rev. of Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee. New York 23 November 1992: 70.
Flamm, Matthew. Rev. of Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee. New York Post 22 January 1993: 29.
Hoberman, J. Rev. of Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee. Village Voice 24 November 1992: 55.
Howe, Desson. Rev. of Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee. Washington Post 20 November 1992: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/movies/videos/malcolmxpg13howe_a0af39.htm
Kempley, Rita. Rev. of Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee. Washington Post 18 November 1992: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/movies/videos/malcolmxpg13kempley_a0a2f5.htm
Mathews, Jack. Rev. of Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee. Newsday 18 November 1992: 2: 61.
Seymour, Gene. Rev. of Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee. Newsday 22 January 1993: 2:61.
Welsh, James M. Rev. of Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee. Films in Review April 1993: 128.
Copyright (c) 2003 John "Jaycee" Culhane, Undergraduate at Lehigh University.
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