Directed by: Spike Lee. It feels like I haven’t seen very many Spike Lee movies, but I’ve actually seen a bunch. The thing I’m learning is, there are movies that Spike Lee does, but which he’s content to button up his personal style in favour of just cranking out a good, high-grossing Hollywood film, and the “Spike Lee films”, the ones that have his unique, exuberant, energetic, imprint on them, full of creative editing choices and camera angles and that characteristic light-hearted humour interweaving with the serious social commentary. Maybe this is the difference between a “Spike Lee Joint” and a film where the credits read “Directed by Spike Lee.” For example, when I saw Do the Right Thing, it felt like the first Spike Lee movie I’d ever seen, even though I’d seen Summer of Sam and 25th Hour and Inside Man. But none of those movies (it’s been awhile, so correct me if I’m wrong) are Spike Lee “joints”, they’re just good movies made by a guy named Spike Lee. Have I sufficiently flogged this point to death? Anyway, this is definitely a Spike Lee Joint, full of the exuberance, bursting at the seams of the medium, at times threatening to break the fourth wall, carrying the torch of French New Wave into the context of early 90’s Hollywood. But the crazy thing is that this movie is also perfectly at home nestled in between all of the other products of early 90’s monumental biographical films, most obviously JFK and Nixon, but also, for my money, in the same pocket as other oversized 90’s epics, from Dances With Wolves to Wyatt Earp to Goodfellas. I’m not making this argument on content, of course, but to me a little spiritual kinship, that there’s something in the air in the early 90’s that prompted big, serious, epic cinematic takes on the big personalities of the past, especially the 60’s, that perhaps reached its peak with Forrest Gump, I don’t know.
But all that stuff aside, this movie obviously stands head and shoulders above all that shit, and I’m not just saying that because it’s freshest in my mind. Obvious exceptions of course are Goodfellas, which is an unfair comparison anyway, and JFK, which is a pretty great comparison. I’m in no position to make assessments based on the racial divide, but I really can’t help but compare, for what it’s worth, the agonized paranoia and violent melancholy of the film of white America’s fallen hero, to this film, about black America’s fallen hero. This is, of course, a big, bold, compelling, and ultimately tragic film, but what sticks out at me is how fun the film is, from that opening shot of the director himself in that crazy 1930’s oversized dandy fedora, to the charming way that Malcolm expresses himself, charming his converts, his wife, and all of us in the audience while he’s doing it. This is a much more linear, watchable, and manageable film than JFK, it’s a straightforward textbook case of how to build up great character drama, by taking the time to build up a great character. And really, this movie is the best of all “Great Man” movies. Readers of this blog might have picked up my skepticism and disdain for films based on propagating the “great man theory” of historical figures. Lincoln, for example, failed to me precisely for this reason: it was a film about a specific piece of legislation that went on to improve the lives of millions of Americans, but the film bogged itself in a swamp of sentimentality by assuming that the best thing about that legislation was that it emanated from the holy greatness of Abe Lincoln, who was a god among men. The film started with the premise that Abe Lincoln was a great man, and did nothing to demonstrate that greatness to us. This film definitely does. We start in a totally different world, the pre-war or mid-war world, a world of worldly excess and material indulgence, and the first time we see Malcolm, he’s suffering from some burning poison in his hair to straighten it, to emulate white standards of beauty. This is the same man who will grow, in the next 3 hours, to be a towering figure of peace and understanding, etc. How many Hollywood movies give you an arc remotely as interesting as this? And even though it pads the movie’s length, that whole first half where falls into the gangster stuff with Delroy Lindo (that guy is amazing), all of that stuff is crucial to the rest of the film. I guess what I’m saying is, of all these big, bloated, weepy Hollywood biopics, this is the one that I’ve seen that best earns its running time, to the extent that I was really left wanting more, even at 200 minutes.