Thursday, June 18, 2015
Naturalistic and episodic though carefully structured, starkly black-and-white, beautifully acted by newcomers like Cybill Shepherd and old-timers like Ben Johnson, who would win a posthumous Best Supporting Oscar for his role as Sam the Lion. Cloris Leachman would also win an Oscar, for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as the haunted, lonely wife of the town's high school's coach and phys. ed. teacher. A young Timothy Bottoms is the protagonist, while a young Jeff Bridges plays his best friend, Duane. Well deserves its place in the upper reaches of the pantheon of American movies. Highly recommended.
The movie takes surprisingly few liberties with the facts of the story, primarily in creating compound characters to streamline the narrative. As Malcolm X (nee Malcolm Little), Denzel Washington gets to travel from hustler and hood to questing intellect over the 3+ hours of the movie, and all of it convincing. The rest of the cast is superb, with stand-outs including Angela Bassett as Malcolm's wife, Betty Shabazz, and Al Freeman Jr. as the manipulative, charismatic Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam.
Lee's direction conveys gravitas, lightness of tone, and impending disaster with equal surety. One can see the energetic, bombastic director of previous films that include Do the Right Thing, but that director can now give the viewer a moving, often very formal biopic in which the didactic moments are dramatically satisfying. Lee also plays with film stock and other factors to simulate period-specific 'real' footage from the time in as deft a manner as anything Oliver Stone had managed in JFK the previous year (and Malcolm X actually uses footage from JFK for the Kennedy assassination in this film, as Stone was one of many who helped Lee get the long-delayed Malcolm X made).
Washington, Lee, and the screenwriters credited and uncredited make Malcolm X into a sympathetic figure on an almost unbelievably rich and complex journey of spiritual growth. One misses him when he's gone from the film, while the film brilliantly shifts from its depiction of events to actual footage of the real Malcolm. The two-part conclusion to the film, with Ossie Davis's 1965 funeral oration followed by contemporary footage shot for the film, is a stunner. So too the movie. Highly recommended.