We’re all stuck in the house, right? There’s never been a better time to dig into those retro movies that you’ve always wanted to watch, but never had the time for. Personally, I’m a bit of a retrophile and tend to watch more older flicks than newer ones. On Fangirlish, you can now look forward to a retro review from me each Wednesday in this column. I’ll be highlighting one throwback movie a week, offering a spoiler-free review of the film, any throwback thoughts from my childhood, and where you can watch the movie yourself. Sit back, relax, and enjoy #WayBackWednesday.
February is Black History Month, so I felt it would be a good idea for me to close some gaps in my movie viewing. I have come to realize that while I’ve seen many newer films by black filmmakers and starring black leads, I have seen very few black-led films or films by black filmmakers prior to the 2000s. For February’s #WayBackWednesday, I want to take the opportunity to get a little more educated in this gap in my film history. I also want to clarify a few things about myself in this endeavor.
- I am not black.
- I’m a white girl from Appalachia who is doing her best not to be ignorant.
- Due to my experience and perspective, there are things I may not be aware of or understand.
- If I mess up, correct me. I promise I won’t mind or get mad. Like I said, I’m doing my best not to be ignorant.
- If I give offense, forgive me. I’m still learning.
I remember an old ad that Nickelodeon would air in the 90s during February with a short informational segment about someone from the annals of Black History–“Black History is everyone’s history.” It’s true. As humans, we all affect one another. Those who make history, make history for everyone.
For this reason, I felt it would be important to start off my #WayBackWednesday coverage this month with a film about a historical figure–Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), starring Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett. Have you seen this masterpiece? Check out the trailer for Malcolm X and we’ll get started with #WayBackWednesday.
Malcolm X is a biopic based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley (Roots). The screenplay was originally written by prominent author James Baldwin and screenwriter, Alex Perl and published in 1972 as One Day, When I Was Lost: A Scenario Based on Alex Haley’s “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”, a year after Perl’s death. Spike Lee revised this screenplay for his own film. With writers like this, it’s no wonder that this film is so solid.
While my knowledge of Spike Lee’s work is limited, one thing that I do know about Lee is that he is above all a truth teller. He doesn’t shy away from hard or difficult topics. Malcolm X is a complicated figure with a complicated past, and this film does not hold back in that regard. Lee takes us from Malcolm’s life as a crook, a prisoner, and then a convert. He also does not hold back regarding some of the more controversial ideas Malcolm originally put forth, such as his belief that all white people are evil. It would be tempting to gloss over or ignore this part of Malcolm X’s life, but Lee makes sure to tell the whole truth here.
It’s also important to note that, if you’re like me and simply didn’t know a lot about Malcolm X, Malcolm did not hold that belief by the end of his life. While I tend to stick to spoiler-free reviews, I do not want to leave an incomplete picture of the man of Malcolm X in this review for fear of someone reading this and walking away with only half the story.
The real pivot in this story is when Malcolm leaves and separates himself from the Nation of Islam, takes a trip to Mecca and becomes a Sunni Muslim. That trip does more to shape Malcolm into the civil rights leader and activist he should be known for today, rather than the more controversial opinions he put forth during his time as a representative of the Nation of Islam. Sadly, that is all I really knew of him prior to watching this film. I am happy to stand corrected.
What makes Malcolm X work more than anything is Denzel Washington’s captivating performance. Denzel Washington portraying Malcolm X is the main reason I chose this film, not just because Denzel is the highest caliber of actor (and by all reports, a great human), but because of his religious beliefs. Denzel is a devout Christian, so I was intrigued to watch him portray someone who was a devout Muslim.
Interestingly, this is not the first time Denzel has portrayed Malcolm X. According to IMDB, Denzel portrayed Malcolm X in a stage play called, “When the Chickens Come Home to Roost” in 1981. He prepared by reading books and articles by and about Malcolm X and he went over hours of tape and film footage of speeches.
When cast in the film, Denzel interviewed people who knew Malcolm X personally, including Malcolm’s wife, Betty Shabazz, and two of his brothers. While Denzel and Malcolm had two different upbringings, focusing on what he and Malcolm had in common allowed Denzel to really sink into the role–Washington was close to Malcolm X’s age when he was assassinated, both men were from large families, both of their fathers were ministers, and both were raised primarily by their mothers. Denzel’s commitment to the role really pays off and earned him an Academy Award nomination for his performance.
If you’re looking for a powerful film and a way to educate yourself about Malcolm X, this film is a great place to start. Don’t leave it there though. Watch the credits–Spike Lee made a point to encourage everyone to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and also put a note about his pursuit of authenticity in the creation of this film. As with all history, we need to do our best to learn from the past, so we do not repeat the worst of it.