‘X’ Marks the Spot
When you’ve scaled the highest mountain and sailed the deepest sea, where do you go from there? And when actors reach the absolute peak of their profession, what do they do for an encore?
Every performer must ask these age-old questions, but not everyone is prepared to face the challenges. If they do confront them, not all of them can succeed. Some reach the summit only to fall flat on their faces; others manage to stay on top (but barely). Still others crest too soon, while some take years to reach their potential.
Clawing your way to success can become an all-consuming passion. Once there, however, the struggle continues for those whose needs are many — come what way. So who, in their right mind, would risk it all on a project deemed too risky and controversial to win over the hearts and minds of skeptics?
For film star Denzel Washington and producer, director, screenwriter, and part-time actor Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever), risk and controversy were an integral part of their game plan. The work they put into their next venture, Malcolm X — a project that had been kicking around Hollywood for some time — was almost too good to be true. In the words of the garrulous Mr. Lee, the film speaks for itself. “It just grows in stature,” he insisted. “That performance … ”
Ah, yes, THAT performance! Spike went into detail about Denzel’s preparation for the difficult part of Malcolm X in an online conversation with singer-performer Pharrell Williams for the Reserve Channel.
“All the speeches in the film were Malcolm’s actual speeches,” Lee claimed. “I’m reading the script. Well, the speech is over, I’m going to call ‘cut.’ But [Denzel] keeps going. He kept going another five minutes until finally the film ran out in the magazine. And the stuff that he said was better than Malcolm’s words. So, I finally called ‘cut.’ I go to Denzel. I said, ‘Denzel, that was great. But where did that come from? You went on five minutes after what was scripted!’ He said, ‘Spike, I don’t know.’ So that’s the type of … he was bringin’ it in.”
“Did that moment go in?” Pharrell inquired.
“Oh, it’s in the movie,” replied Lee. “But here’s the thing that people don’t understand. Denzel worked a year before we started shooting. He told his agent, ‘I’m not working anymore.’ He prepared a year for that role. What did he do? ‘I’m playing a Muslim. OK, I can’t eat pork anymore. I’m playing a Muslim, I can’t drink. I have to learn how to speak Arabic, I have to learn to read the Quran.’ He became a student of Malcolm. It’s more than just the impersonation. It’s more than just dyeing his hair red or putting on the glasses or the voice. Because all that is superficial.
“Denzel knew he had to be in a space spiritually where Malcolm comes into his vessel. So that’s why he was able to do that five-minute thing after the scripted pages ended. That was Malcolm in him, Malcolm came into his soul right there. I said [that] to Denzel, he could not remember what he said.
“You got to put the work in,” Lee concluded. “Otherwise, you’re bullshitting. You’re shuckin’ and jivin’ … If you’re bullshitting, your stuff is not going to stand the test of time.”
And what a time that was! The name part in Malcolm X, released in November 1992, was the longest and most elaborate of Denzel’s decade-long film career to that point and beyond. Next to Inside Man (2006), the Malcolm X project was Lee’s most “mainstream” picture. Denzel had earlier appeared as Malcolm in Laurence Holder’s 1981 off-Broadway play When the Chickens Come Home to Roost. Obviously, the star was familiar with the character’s background and had put forth the effort into becoming the former Malcolm Little, aka “Detroit Red.”
‘Malcolm’ in the Middle, Beginning and End
Denzel was close to the real Malcolm X’s age when he completed Spike’s massive three-hour epic. As a matter of fact, the ex-Nation of Islam minister and one-time follower of the (once) Honorable Elijah Muhammad was 39 years old at his death (on February 21, 1965), compared to Denzel’s 38. In the height department, Denzel stood six-foot one-inch tall, compared to Malcolm’s six-foot-three or -four, a slight if perceptible difference; and they both had slim builds.
Dee’s refined facial features, while elongated and thin, did not exactly resemble that of Mr. X’s. In critic and writer David Thomson’s judgment, Malcolm was “gaunter” and “had a hardened carapace — to life and the camera — that no actor could conceive of.” This was spot-on accurate. And as dynamic and flashy a presence as Denzel could bring to the screen, he had not yet gone through the vagaries of life nor had he experienced the poverty, the misery, the bitter struggles and severe hardships that Malcolm and the Little family had to contend with on a daily basis.
Interestingly, the two men had more in common than originally thought: both their fathers were ministers, both came from large families, and both were raised by their mothers.
Looking at it from another angle, Leonardo DiCaprio, who took on the eccentric Howard Hughes in Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), faced a similar handicap. Since he neither resembled nor spoke anything like the mysterious billionaire recluse, he was at a disadvantage. However, Leo did maintain a furrowed brow throughout the length of the picture. Perhaps he learned from Denzel that to assume the visage of a known historical figure, one must mentally realign one’s features (either by sheer concentration or force of will). There was also a huge age disparity between Hughes and the actor playing him. Basically, viewers had to take Leo’s assumption of the part more on “faith” than on actual likeness.
In contrast, Denzel’s smoother, unlined countenance captured, “in spirit” (as was claimed in the above discussions), the corporeal and emotional as well as the vital psychological characteristics of Malcolm in the assorted phases of his life: from kitchen worker to Pullman porter; from street hustler, pimp, and drug pusher to convicted felon; from ex-con to eager acolyte; from faithful minister to disillusioned devotee; and, finally, from an African-American seeking clarity and wisdom to that of a reinvigorated human being.
That was quite the trajectory for one man to have undergone. In that, Denzel would need all the help and support he could get from Lee and his large cast and crew. If, as they say, timing is everything, then both Lee and Dee were blessed and guided by it. The time, 1992, more than a year after the Rodney King beating, was indeed right for Malcolm’s story to be told. Much more than your normal biopic — their models would be Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi from ten years prior and the same director’s Cry Freedom (1987) about South African activist Stephen Biko, played by Denzel himself — Malcolm X traces the ups and downs and the ultimately tragic course of the main protagonist’s life-cycle.
The physical aspects of the production would, by necessity, encompass the changing hair and fashion trends of the various time periods in question, along with the settings, locales, events, personalities, and individuals involved. Some biographical matters would be rendered in flashback, whereas others moved the drama along in strict chronological order.
Each of the periods had its own specific look: for example, the zoot-suited weirdness of the thirties and forties (set in brightly-colored hues) and the darkly portentous sixties (told in earth-toned severity). As he did with Do the Right Thing, director Lee’s color palette (courtesy of cinematographer and fellow New York University Film School graduate Ernest Dickerson) varied from the bold and outlandish to the dowdy and stern. Historical accuracy would be stressed, but not slavishly so. More significantly, given Lee’s penchant for over-the-top, in-your-face brashness, Malcolm’s milieu would be recreated, as close as humanly possible, to what was known and documented about it.
Beginning with Malcolm’s “Detroit Red” period, Denzel would first personify the handsome dandy who could win over women and befriend the likes of gangster West Indian Archie (a distinctive Delroy Lindo). Malcolm’s escapades with best friend Shorty (Spike Lee, in a riotously comedic tour de “farce” part), his subsequent arrest and imprisonment, and his later conversion to Islam by the insistent Brother Baines (a stern Albert Hall) would take some liberties with the facts, but adhere closely (for the most part) to such sources as The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley (first published in 1965) and the original screenplay by Arnold Perl (revised by scriptwriter Lee).
At the epicenter of activity would be Denzel’s pivotal interpretation. Similar to that of Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence from Lawrence of Arabia (1962) — another epic depiction of a flawed historical character surrounded by events spiraling out of his control — Dee would be present and accounted for in virtually every scene. Film critic Julian Roman had hitherto noted that Denzel’s Private Trip in Glory was “a transcendent performance.” If that was the case, then the actor’s active participation in Malcolm X transcended even that milestone effort.
Both he and Lee could have fallen on their faces had they failed to stir the masses. The famously motor-mouthed director was known to talk his head off about racial, economic, political, and socially relevant matters — topics designed to focus primarily on whatever theme or issue his latest project happened to touch upon. Success, in the eyes of some, would be fleeting if at all attainable.
They each proved their critics wrong. With his compelling screen presence, Denzel had successfully portrayed one man’s momentous journey despite the short, turbulent life he left behind; how that man changed his outlook, at key intervals, because of his reawakening: first to religion, then to active militancy; next, to polemics; and, finally, back to religion — more precisely, to the universal brotherhood of man.
Cinematic Moments to Remember
The beauty of Washington’s performance, then, was his complete and utter devotion to Malcolm’s mission. You could sense the passion in every word and movement. For anyone watching the film, Denzel shines a beacon on what is, at first, a rather devious individual — called “the devil” in the scene where a Catholic priest (snidely played by Christopher Plummer) uses that exact term.
That this individual had a soul and a unique ability to move people to action is hinted at in the “indoctrination” process he underwent via the Nation of Islam’s efforts. Malcolm’s teary-eyed meeting with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (humbly if calculatedly portrayed by soft-spoken Al Freeman Jr.) is one of the most memorable and moving episodes in the entire picture. Their solemn encounter had to be emphasized, for later, when Malcolm learns that Elijah Muhammad has been less than “honorable” in associating himself with under-aged girls, he experiences a change of heart.
In between, curious bystanders (few at first) both see and hear Malcolm giving street-corner lectures and preaching to anyone who will listen that blacks have been oppressed by whites for centuries (“We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us!”). He begins to draw more and more crowds. Soon, he becomes more popular than the man whose so-called “virtues” he’s been extolling. This does not curry favor with the Muslim brotherhood.
The journey climaxes in the startlingly violent blood-bath near the end where Malcolm is gunned down before a gathering that includes his wife Betty Shabazz (a sympathetic Angela Bassett) and their young children. The scene is shocking in its brutality.
Despite the lurid quality of his death, there are moments where Malcolm makes a point of demonstrating the power of the spoken word (and mesmerizingly so). In others, specifically the scenes at the police station where Malcolm confronts a surly white desk sergeant, which is also the place where a battered and bloodied Brother Johnson (Steve White) is visited by him and his band of “Brothers,” Malcolm is calm and deliberate. Here, moderation and steadfastness prevail.
In a related sequence, silence and hand gestures lead the way. When a mob of protesters is seen standing and shouting “We want Johnson!” outside Harlem Hospital, an enormous police captain (Peter Boyle) comes over to accost Malcolm. He orders him and his followers to disperse. After a doctor assures Malcolm that Brother Johnson will survive his wounds, Malcolm flashes a smile at the captain and, turning his back to the lawman, raises a gloved hand, which immediately quiets the crowd. Pointing his finger and hand in the opposite direction, the crowd calmly files out military style (to a “rum-tiddy-tum-tum” drum roll accompaniment). The startled captain remarks, under his breath, “That’s too much power for one man to have.”
Director Lee, whose knowledge of the movies was honed by his attendance at both Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University, along with a Master of Fine Arts from the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, had clearly referenced a similar situation from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) where the gigantic Captain McCloskey (Sterling Hayden) tells Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) to clear out from guarding his dad, the wounded Vito Corleone, before bashing him on the jaw.
Prior to Malcolm’s untimely end, he experiences another epiphany. His life-changing pilgrimage to Mecca, the site of Islam’s holiest shrine, and his collective worship with others of the faith — many of whom came from differing backgrounds, races, colors, and creeds — forces Malcolm to accept the fact that Islam, and indeed every religion, is meant for everyone and not just a select few.
In that wide-ranging conversation both he and Spike Lee had for the 2006 DVD/Blu-ray Disc edition of Inside Man, Denzel claimed that Malcolm X wasn’t his hardest role; that he had previously done the play and was familiar with the contentious black activist’s life. So he felt comfortable enough to do it. Possessing the “gift of gab,” as he phrased it, Denzel had Malcolm’s speeches pasted to his dressing room wall. When it came time to shooting the actual footage, Lee kept loading the camera with film.
“I was trying to capture the spirit,” Denzel confirmed for the cameras.
“The spirit,” Lee repeated and continued. “Just acting, ‘Well, I’m going to look like him,’ that’s just surface stuff.”
There was nothing “surface” about Denzel Washington’s Oscar-nominated turn, one of the finest screen portraits in many a year. He was able to penetrate deep inside, in between, over and above Malcolm’s surface and into the person himself. That the veteran Al Pacino beat him out for Best Actor honors in Scent of a Woman was an injustice and a dereliction of duty by the members of Hollywood’s Motion Picture Academy.
Nevertheless, when he worked on Malcolm X, Denzel would pray every morning, “before I came to that trailer,” to be filled with the man’s spirit. “I’m like, ‘All right, Malcolm, come on.’ And it’s not for me. It’s for him and for those hopefully that he affected.”
Those prayers were not in vain.
End of Part Six
(To be continued….)
Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes