Monday, February 15, 2016
The Acting Black Blogathon: Denzel Washington in Malcolm X
I am finally in a place where I’m comfortable saying this. I’ve struggled with religion for my entire life. I don’t claim one. Never have. However, there was a time when I actively sought to do just that. The 1990s were just beginning. Like most of you I was trapped in that really weird place between childhood and adulthood – over eighteen and under twenty-one. That place where you legitimately think you’re human, but act like a feral beast. I was also a rather militant young chap. I took political cues from the music of artists such as Public Enemy, Bob Marley, Brand Nubian and X-Clan, the films of Spike Lee, and the ravaging effects of Reaganomics and COINTELPRO on the neighborhoods I grew up in and around. I listened to speeches by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Huey P. Newton, Angela Davis, and most often Malcolm X. On the wall of my room in the barracks, I was in the U.S. Army at the time, hung a poster depicting the only known meeting between Malcolm and Dr. King. Not only was Malcolm a hero of mine, but Islam was the hot religion among young, black men. Naturally, I heavily considered becoming a Muslim by way of the Nation of Islam, the same group that catapulted Malcolm to fame. Nearly thirty years after his death he was as big as he’s ever been. Hats and t-shirts with either his likeness or the simple letter ‘X’ were everywhere. I wanted to be part of what made him great. Joining the Nation of Islam seemed like a logical step to take. Before actually taking that step I did a good deal of reading on it, including books by Elijah Muhammad, the now-former leader of the NOI who guided Malcolm’s meteoric rise through the organization. Eventually I decided it wasn’t for me, but I still maintained a heavy reverence for Malcolm. In the midst of all this, news came that Spike Lee was making a biopic about him. To say I was pumped is putting it incredibly mildly.
My excitement ratcheted up when I found out a young Oscar winner by the name of Denzel Washing was to play the fiery Malcolm. By this time I had already been watching Denzel for about a decade starting with the TV hospital drama St. Elsewhere. I loved him in a supporting role in 1984’s A Soldier’s Story and a few other things. One of these was another supporting role that includes the exact moment he became THE Denzel Washington. This same moment is probably most responsible for winning him his first Academy Award. That film is 1989’s Glory. I had no doubt he would do a great job. What he did far exceeded even those lofty expectations.
The film begins with one of the most provocative moments in the career of director Spike Lee, which is saying a lot. It’s a shot of an American flag that takes up the entire screen. We see that the flag is burning. At the same time, we hear the voice of Denzel as Malcolm delivering one of the orator’s many passionate and inflammatory speeches. When he finishes speaking the flag has been burned until all that’s left is in the shape of the letter ‘X.” This gets the film and Denzel’s performance off to good start. However, it’s important to note that at this point he’s still Denzel playing Malcolm X. The movie then thrusts us into the life of Malcolm Little. This is where things begin to change.
For those not in the know, Malcolm Little is the given name of our titular hero. His childhood is shown in a handful of flashbacks, so we dive right into Malcolm’s adult life. He’s a two-bit hustler and womanizer who gets into a little of everything crooked while we watch many of his exploits. The upshot of all this is that act one culminates in a lengthy prison sentence for Mr. Little. It is during this portion of the film that Denzel Washington performs his first miracle. He as the aid of Lee’s direction, of course, but he locks us in and gets us completely engaged in a person who really isn’t all that likable. His character’s aspirations are to be the best the being the worst. What’s more is that to this point in the movie, there are no likable people. Somehow, in this den iniquity, we anxiously await his next move even though we don’t know what to make of him.
The second act is where we learn to like Malcolm. It starts with his prison bid and his introduction to Islam. Washington plays it with a sense of wonder that verges on being unbelievable, but never is. Lee does his part on the narrative side by telling the story thoroughly without rushing. Instead of having his main character do an abrupt about-face, he allows the cover to be pulled slowly from Malcolm’s eyes. Denzel perfectly conveys a man who has been looking for something his whole life without knowing what that is and finally seeing it for the first time. You can see the introspection on his face whenever he learns something. Without him saying, we know he’s internalizing and reevaluating. We see a man coming to terms with how wicked his ways were before coming into this newfound light. We see a man trying to better himself.
After his release from prison, Malcolm continues along the path of the righteous. I’m not referring to his religion, per se. That’s merely the catalyst for what we really like about him. Denzel conveys such passion as he transforms from crook to clergy it’s infectious. We begin to root for him even if the ideologies he’s adopted feel abrasive to us. The reason is we know who he was understand that he is using every ounce of his being to not be that person. This is when Denzel’s second miracle takes place. He’s no longer just playing a character in the midst of dropping the name Little in favor of the moniker the world would come to know him by. He himself transforms into Malcolm X.
As we move through the third and final act, our hero undergoes another transformation. His ideologies are amended to be more inclusive. We like this not just because it’s a bit more politically correct, but because of what that represents. He is a man that once narrowed his view of the world as way to help block out its undesirable, or perhaps too desirable, aspects. Now he’s comfortable enough in his own skin to be open to the most important lessons his faith has to teach him. By now, we’ve completely brought into this man’s journey because Denzel is nothing less than authentic. Therefore, when the world he helped to build turns on him, we empathize with him. This isn’t the third miracle. It is merely what we’ve been working toward for the entirety of the film. The miracle is the final thing we see Malcolm X do. By the time, he is resigned to the fact his own murder is imminent. However he can’t, or won’t, go into hiding because there is still much work to do as it pertains to civil rights. This wears on him. It wears on us. That last thing is odd, to be sure, and the source of confusion for many viewers because it seems to be an odd acting choice. He is an unarmed man staring down the barrel of the gun of a person fully intent on killing him. He doesn’t run or cower. Nor does he put up some brave front. He does what we all do when we’re relieved that some trying experience is finally over. He smiles.
The expression is simultaneously selfish and selfless. The selfish part is that he knows that he’s about to be free of the stress placed upon him by himself and others. Their threats will no longer bother him. On the other hand, he’s happy that these men only came for him. His family and friends are no longer at risk of becoming collateral damage in the war his own former organization and/or the federal government is waging against him.
Denzel Washington’s greatest greatness, to use a term from the movie, is that when I hear the name Malcolm X I first see Denzel’s face adorned with black rimmed glasses and peering deep into my soul. I have to make myself push beyond that image to see the actual Malcolm. And I am no youngster introduced to the civil rights leader by this movie. I was very aware of him, his message, and his likeness well before I walked into a Raleigh, NC theater to see this in 1992. The simple truth is Denzel turns in a transformative and revelatory performance. Normally, when I think of those words in reference to the work of a thespian I think of actors who have undergone massive weight gain or loss, and/or spent hours a day in makeup in order to become this other person. Washington did none of those things yet still disappeared into the role. HE went from an empty void of a man to one filled with conviction and hope to one realizing he still needed to grow even though he knew that that growth was about to be purposely and viciously stunted. Every moment of it is nothing less than one hundred percent believable. It’s an astonishing piece of work that I count among the handful of best performances of all-time.
Beginning tomorrow, I will publish links to the previous day's entries in The Acting Black Blogathon. Thanks to all of you who have posted on this topic today, and those who will over the next two days.