Culture Magazine

Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Six): Much Ado About Malcolm

By Josmar16 @ReviewsByJosmar

When you've climbed the highest mountain and scaled the dizziest heights, 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 asks these age-old questions. But not everyone is prepared to face the challenge. If we do confront it, not all of us can succeed. Some reach the summit only to fall flat on their asses; 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 also become an all-consuming obsession. 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 movie 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 always part of their game plan. The work they put into their next venture, Malcolm X - a project that had been kicked around Hollywood for some time - was almost too good to be true. In the words of Mr. Lee, the film speaks for itself. "It just grows in stature," he insisted. "That performance ... "

Ah, yes, THAT performance! Lee went into detail about Denzel's preparation for the part of Malcolm X in an online chat for the Reserve Channel with singer-performer Pharrell Williams.

"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."

"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," he 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 it was! The name part in Malcolm X, released in November of 1992, was the longest and most elaborate of Denzel's decade-long film career to that point and beyond. Next to Inside Man, the Malcolm X project was also 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. So the star was familiar with the character and had put 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 Lee's 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 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 screen presence as Denzel could muster, 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 lived 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.

For a comparison, take Leonardo DiCaprio, who took on the eccentric Howard Hughes in The Aviator (2004). DiCaprio faced a similar handicap, since he neither looked nor talked anything like the mysterious Mr. Hughes. However, Leo did maintain a furrowed brow throughout the bulk of the picture. Perhaps he learned from Denzel that to take on the visage of a known historical figure, one must mentally realign one's features (either by force of will or sheer concentration). There was also a large age disparity between Hughes and DiCaprio. Basically, viewers had to take Leo's assumption of the part more on "faith" than on actual likeness.

In contrast, Denzel's smoother, unlined forehead captured, "in spirit" (as was claimed in the above discussions with director Lee), the corporeal and emotional as well as the all-vital psychological characteristics of Malcolm's assorted life: from kitchen worker to Pullman porter; from a street hustler, pimp and drug pusher to convicted felon; from ex-con to 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 undergo. In that, Denzel would need all the help and support he could get from Spike 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 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 ultimately tragic course of the main protagonist's lifecycle.

The physical aspects of the production would, by necessity, encompass the changing hair and fashion trends of the time periods in question, along with the myriad settings, locales, events, personalities, and individuals involved. Some biographical matters would be told in flashback, whereas others moved the drama along in 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, Spike Lee's color palette (courtesy of famed cinematographer and fellow New York University Film School graduate Ernest Dickerson) varied from the bold and outlandish to the downright dowdy and stern. Historical accuracy would be stressed, but not slavishly so. And 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.

Beginning with Malcolm's "Detroit Red" period, Denzel would first personify the handsome dandy who could win over attractive 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 screenwriter Lee).

At the center of activity would be Denzel's pivotal interpretation. In the manner of Peter O'Toole's T.E. Lawrence from Lawrence of Arabia (1962) - another epic depiction of a flawed historical character surrounded by events spinning 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 anything that had come before.

He and Lee could have fallen on their asses if their efforts had failed to stir the critics and the masses. The famously motor-mouthed writer-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. What Denzel captured with his compelling screen presence was one man's journey through a short, turbulent life; and how that man had changed his outlook, at key intervals, because of his awakening: first to religion, then to 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. For anyone watching the film, Denzel shines a light 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 same 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 played by a soft-spoken Al Freeman Jr.) is one of the most memorable and moving episodes in the entire picture. This quiet encounter had to be emphasized, for later, when Malcolm learns that Elijah Muhammad has been less than "honorable" in associating himself with young girls, he experiences a profound change of heart.

In between, curious bystanders (few at first) both see and hear Malcolm giving street-side lectures and preaching to anyone who will listen that the black man has been oppressed by whites for centuries. He begins to draw interested 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, which 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.

There are also 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, and where the battered and bloodied Brother Johnson (Steve White) is visited by Malcolm and his many "Brothers," calm and moderation prevail.

In a related sequence, silence and hand gestures show the way. When a mob of protesters is seen standing and shouting "We want Johnson" outside Harlem Hospital, an enormous police captain (Peter Boyle) accosts Malcolm and orders him and his followers to disperse. After a doctor assures Malcolm that Brother Johnson will survive his wounds, Malcolm smiles back at the captain and, turning his back to the lawman, raises a gloved hand, which immediately quiets the crowd. Pointing his hand in the opposite direction, the Brothers and the crowd calmly file out military style (with a rum-tiddy-tum-tum drum roll in accompaniment). The captain remarks, under his breath, "That's too much power for one man to have."

Director Lee, whose knowledge of 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 to clear out before striking him on the jaw.

Before Malcolm's untimely end, he experiences an epiphany. His life-changing pilgrimage to Mecca, the site of Islam's holiest shrine, and his collective worship with others of the same faith - many of whom came from different backgrounds, races, colors, and creeds - forces Malcolm to accept that Islam, and indeed all 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 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.

"The spirit," Lee acknowledged and continued. "Just acting, 'Well, I'm going to look like him,' that's just surface stuff."

There was nothing "surface" at all about Denzel's Oscar-nominated turn, one of the finest screen portraits in many a year. He was able to get inside, in between, over and above Malcolm's skin and into the person. 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 the 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."

His prayers were not in vain.

End of Part Six

(To be continued....)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

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