Malcolm X

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Synopsis

One of the most electrifying heroes of the twentieth century receives an appropriately sweeping screen biopic, rich in both historical insight and propulsive cinematic style, courtesy of visionary director Spike Lee. Built around an extraordinary performance from Denzel Washington, Malcolm X draws on the iconic civil rights leader’s autobiography to trace his journey of empowerment, from a childhood riven by white-supremacist violence to a life of petty crime to his conversion to Islam and rebirth as a fearless fighter for Black liberation, whose courage and eloquence inspired oppressed communities the world over. An epic of impeccable craft that was made with Lee’s closest creative collaborators and is buoyed by commanding performances from Delroy Lindo, Angela Bassett, Al Freeman Jr., and others, this is a passionate monument to a man whose life continues to serve as a model of principled resistance.

Picture 9/10

Spike Lee’s Malcolm X receives an all-new 4K UHD special edition release from The Criterion Collection. It is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in 4K resolution on the first triple-layer disc of this three-disc set with a 2160p/24hz ultra high-definition encode with Dolby Vision. A 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is included on the second dual-layer disc while all of the video features are included on the third dual-layer disc. The master is sourced from a new 4K restoration taken from a scan of the 35mm original negative.

I can’t say the end results have come out as a particular surprise considering Criterion’s track record with the format so far (especially with their Warner licensed titles), yet this still looks remarkably good. Warner’s Blu-ray used an older master, more than likely the same high-definition master used for their DVD edition, so I’m sure there is no shock when I say this 4K presentation offers a substantial improvement over it. Nevertheless, even when compared to the high-definition presentation found within the set’s included Blu-ray that utilizes the same restoration, the improvements found in the 4K version are are still substantial.

All things considered, especially the film’s length (over 200-minutes), Criterion has done a solid job encoding the standard high-definition presentation found on the second disc. I was expecting a number of problems, particularly heavy macroblocking, but I can’t say I ever noticed it and I’m sure a lot of it has to do with Criterion maxing out the disc’s available space. Even then, grain could look a little digital at times throughout the film while the presentation could present some minor artifacts when it came to blending bright reds against deeper blacks.

Taken as a whole the standard high-def presentation is incredibly clean, but there was room for improvement and the 4K presentation makes it clear it’s more than up to the challenge. The digital presentation here is substantially cleaner in comparison to the high-def one delivering a more natural looking grain structure while also handling the reds pressed up against the deeper blacks in a better manner, best shown in a scene featuring a crowd dancing to Jr Walker & The All Star’s “Shotgun.” I can’t recall a moment where the image ever appears noisy or blocky and it even looks great during the film’s more complicated shots, at least more complicated in terms of rendering things digitally. There’s a scene where young Malcolm (Denzel Washington) is in a dark solitary cell and at a few points the little flaps on the door will open and bring light into the smoky room. The high-definition presentation, to its credit, handles these moments exceptionally well, but the grain looks significantly better here as the light blends into the room.

On that latter point, HDR and Dolby Vision almost certainly play a part in helping sequences like this, and these layers also offer a further boost to the rest of the film. It’s applied modestly with things rarely ever looking all that blown out, and it works more to enhance some of the highlights and increase details in the shadows through most of the film. Still, there are several standout moments, including one where Malcolm confronts Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.) over a scandal that has come to light, the latter sitting in the horizontal shadows cast from the window blinds. The wider range and contrast do absolute wonders with those shadows, the jump from light to dark looking undeniably striking. The scene comes out bit more menacing compared to how the same scene looks on the standard Blu-ray, where contrast and brightness had to be boosted a bit. The opening sequence, which features Spike Lee’s Shorty strutting towards the camera in his zoot suit at sunrise is another remarkable looking moment. The sequence can look a little washed out on the Blu-ray but the improved dynamic range in this presentation helps clear up some of those details and expose more colours, which in turn delivers better depth. Even tiny niceties scattered about the film, like those found in the lighting in a mosque closer to the end of the film, expose more detail and depth, to the point where the individual bulbs in that sequence are easier to see.

It looks superb, and the wider dynamic range also further enhances the remarkable work that has gone into the restoration itself. That one sequence in the mosque closer to the end features burned-in subtitles and a slightly dupier quality to the picture compared to the rest of the film (maybe it was sourced from a later generation print for the subs), but outside of that short sequence and early portions of the film (which feature a softer look by design) the film looks crisp and clean, nary a mark or scratch to be found outside of some archival material that has been inserted. Even the footage lifted from Oliver Stone’s JFK looks pretty good.

All around, from the restoration to the digital encode to application of HDR, this is a remarkable looking presentation and by far the best I’ve seen yet for the film.

(All SDR screen grabs have been taken from the source disc and have been converted to JPG files. They are presented in full resolution and may not properly fit some monitors. While they should offer an idea around the general look they should not be considered reference quality.)

Audio 9/10

Criterion presents the film’s soundtrack in lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround. It’s still a surprisingly active and robust mix that takes full advantage of the soundstage. Dialogue is focused primarily to the fronts, moving naturally between the speakers when called for, but range is surprisingly wide when moving from quieter moments to the louder speeches from Malcolm X. Music, whether it be songs within the film or the score itself, is mixed effectively through the surrounds with a nice subtle use of the lower frequency. A scene featuring people dancing to Jr Walker & The All Star’s “Shotgun,” everyone snapping and clapping along with it, is an especially impressive sequence, followed closely by the many moments featuring crowds applauding or hollering. It’s a fantastic mix, far more dynamic than I would have expected.

Extras 9/10

Criterion’s new special edition primarily utilizes previous material produced by Warner Bros., though they have thankfully also recorded a few new interviews. Outside of an audio commentary (which appears alongside the film on the 4K disc and the first standard Blu-ray presenting the film in high-definition) all of the supplements can be found on a second standard dual-layer Blu-ray, the third disc in the set.

Of the new material, director Spike Lee first pops up in a 26-minute interview conducted by journalist Barry Michael Cooper. Following the disheartening reminder that this year marks the 30th anniversary of its release the two discuss how they first met (Lee had asked Cooper to write the foreword for The Making of Do the Right Thing) before examining the film’s history and production. The film was of course in development for a long period after producer Marvin Worth bought up the rights to The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley, with director Norman Jewison attached to direct at one point. Lee talks about how he became involved upon hearing of Jewison’s involvement, contacting anyone who would listen to explain that as wonderful a director Jewison is the story would be best told from a Black filmmaker’s perspective, from someone who can better relate to the material. (Jewison would graciously drop out.) From here Lee talks about the many concerns and criticisms brought forth to him once he was in the director’s chair (concerns from the Black community about getting into Malcolm X’s younger years, possible concerns about how the Nation of Islam would react to the portrayal of Elijah Muhammad, and more) before then talking about casting. There’s some great discussion around Lee’s cinematic influences (it was nice to get a confirmation that Lee lifted one shot almost exactly from Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole) and then a nice section where they focus on the performances. Denzel Washington’s of course comes up, but it was nice to hear Angela Bassett, Al Freeman Jr., Albert Hall and Delroy Lindo get shout outs as well. Even if some of the details covered here do come up in the commentary it’s worth watching since Lee does expand on a few topics while the passing of 30 years allows the two to reflect on what the film (and the man it depicts) mean now.

Following that, Criterion throws in two more new interviews, a 19-minute one featuring composer Terence Blanchard and 17-minute one featuring actor Delroy Lindo. Blanchard’s is kind of amusing because I don’t think I fully realized, even after his recent interviews found on Criterion’s editions for Eve’s Bayou and Love & Basketball, how he really was just tossed into the profession. As he explains it here, Lee just threw him into doing the score for Jungle Fever, despite no experience in the area, and I guess it must have worked out because they’ve done many films together since. Malcolm X ended up being his second score and he talks about how Lee wanted a “big” Hollywood score, complete with an orchestra and a choir, and it sounds as though Blanchard feared he was getting in over his head. But he pulled it off and it’s probably because (as he explains here) he made sure it was appropriate to the man and his metamorphosis as a person as depicted in the film. It’s a great discussion with a few funny little asides, like where he recalls his reaction upon hearing Lee describe the premise for Bamboozled to him.

Lindo’s interview is also a terrific new addition, the actor talking about his character West Indian Archie. He was all over the role when it was first offered to him (one of the appeals was playing a character from the Caribbean since Lindo is of Jamaican descent), and he explains what he brought to the role, even improvising the ailment that would strike his character later on in the film. Lindo then talks about his theater background and even recalls how he was initially approached by Lee for a role in Do the Right Thing, which Lindo turned down (he’s thankful Lee didn’t hold it against him). I don’t believe I’ve ever seen an interview with Lindo before so I was especially thrilled with this feature, but if I had one little disappointment it’s that he doesn’t get more into his career as a whole, but maybe, if Criterion decides to visit Lee’s Netflix film Da 5 Bloods, Lindo will pop up on there as well.

The rest of the on-disc material is ported over from Warner Bros.’ previous DVD and Blu-ray editions. From that edition (and appearing here on both the 4K disc and the first standard Blu-ray) is an audio commentary featuring director, Lee, director of photography Ernest R. Dickerson, costume designer Ruth E. Carter, and editor Barry Alexander Brown. All four have been recorded separately and then edited together, comments appearing at appropriate moments throughout the film. Lee focuses much of his attention on the production, recalling its history and then issues that popped up during shooting, like how the bond company assigned to the film almost shut down the production when the film ran out of money (I of course pictured the “Bond Company Stooge” played by Bud Cort in The Life Aquatic every time this topic came up). Brown of course covers the film’s editing, explaining many of his decisions like why he showed Malcolm’s hugs twice from different perspectives throughout the film. He even talks about editing in footage from Oliver Stone’s JFK (with Stone’s permission) when depicting John F. Kennedy’s assassination, mentioning how he studied the editing of that film and how it possibly influenced him here. But, rather surprisingly, it ends up being the comments from Dickerson and Carter that I found to be most rewarding.

Carter made me far more aware than I usually am around how difficult it can be to create costumes for what are essentially period films, and this one proved most difficult because a.) the film takes place across many very distinct points in history, all with their own unique styles, and b.) she could only reference black-and-white photos when it came to deciding on colours. Dickerson also points out how he came up with unique looks for each section of the film to offer a clear divide between each period in Malcolm X’s life. He best describes it as coming to the project like he was making four different films. He also brings up his own cinematic inspirations behind the film and it’s look, with The Godfather being a rather big one, and this became far more obvious after going through the film again. It’s a wonderful track, one of the better studio-produced ones I can recall going through, with very little fat despite the film’s 201-minute runtime. Whoever edited this together did a spectacular job because it manages to fly by quickly and features next-to-no dead space.

Also ported over is the 30-minute making-of documentary, By Any Means Necessary: The Making of “Malcolm X.” Narrated by James Earl Jones, it offers an overview of the film’s production, from Jewison’s initial involvement to its eventual release, providing interviews from Lee, Dickerson, Blanchard, Brown, Carter, Denzel Washington and others, Martin Scorsese, Ossie Davis and Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz also making appearances. If you’ve seen any studio produced making-of from the period you more-or-less know what to expect from it, but this one is better-than-average as it gets a little more into Warner Bros.’ hesitation around the project and how Lee was able to get the money he needed to finish the film, only touched on to a certain extent in the commentary. There’s also a little more around the editing process, with the film’s initial cut being around 4-hours long. It’s worth watching but there’s nothing that ends up being too surprising here, other than the documentary ends up using John Williams’ JFK score for whatever reason.

The disc also features nine deleted scenes, all with an introduction by Lee and running 21-minutes in total with those intros. Lee talks about the scenes and explains in a few cases why the scenes were ultimately cut, though I think it really comes down to the scenes not adding much and the film was running too long. There are a few rather good scenes, like one where the Malcolm Little’s and Shorty’s girlfriends are casing a house, one where Benjamin (Jean LaMarre) is “disciplined” and another where Malcolm and his wife Betty (Angela Bassett) are just simply enjoying an ice cream, but even if they’re worth watching on their own I can’t say they’re missed all that much.

There is one scene that proved very interesting, though, and it is one that plays off of another scene midway through the film. At one point, while on a school campus, Malcolm is approached by a young White woman who asks how she could help, and he ends up dismissing her. Lee explains that this incident was one that Malcolm would come to enormously regret, so Lee took the opportunity to create another scene where yet another woman asks him what she can do to help and this time he tells her exactly what can be done, welcoming her. Malcolm X’s beliefs changed drastically by this point in his life and Lee wanted to show this arc in the film, so having a scene that linked directly to that earlier one was a wonderful way to hit this point home, even if it’s not based on fact. Yet there’s something about the scene that just doesn’t work and I’m at a loss as to what it is, whether it’s how it’s staged or something to do with the performances, but I have to assume Lee also wasn’t feeling it (and can most certainly explain what the issue is) and that’s why it was ultimately cut.

The disc closes with the film’s trailer and one of the release’s bigger additions, Arnold Perl’s 1972 Oscar nominated documentary, Malcolm X, which was also produced by Marvin Worth. The 91-minute impressionistic documentary is a portrait of the man told through archival material that includes interviews, news broadcasts and footage from his public appearances. James Earl Jones will then occasionally provide voiceover, usually reading from Malcolm X’s writings. As Lee would do with his film Perl’s explores Malcolm’s life and how his views evolved through the years while also offering hints of the incidents (through what public material is available) that would eventually lead to his murder. The film also explores the aftermath of his death and even ends with Ossie Davis’ eulogy, as Lee’s film would.

It’s an effective and wonderfully edited documentary, great to have available again (Warner included it on their DVD and limited-edition Blu-ray, not their standard Blu-ray), but it was also fantastic to get a large collection of actual footage from Malcolm X’s speeches, seeing how Lee incorporated the man’s words into his film, even blending them in a few cases. It was also interesting to see how Lee changed the settings of some of his speeches to make them more cinematic. Very happy Criterion saw it worthwhile carrying the film over. (As a note, the presentation appears to be a standard-definition upscale.)

The release then comes with a 44-page booklet, featuring an excellent essay on the film and its legacy written by Cooper. It also features excerpts from the 1992 book By Any Means Necessary: The Trial and Tribulations of the Making of “Malcolm X,” the first featuring Lee detailing aspects of the film’s production and mentioning how the film has been, in some way, always there in the back of his mind. The other excerpt, making up a little for the release’s lack of an interview with Denzel Washington, features the actor recounting his work on the film and calling it “the role of lifetime.” Then a in a nice touch the booklet concludes with a reprint Ossie Davis’ eulogy, given at Malcolm X’s funeral. It’s one of Criterion’s better booklets of late.

There’s some material I would have liked to see, including more academic contributions. It may have also been interesting to learn more about Jewison’s early participation in the film. Still, as it is through this release’s new and archival materials Criterion has thrown together a rather comprehensive edition and all of the material is well worth digging into.

Closing

Spike Lee’s ambitious biographical film has never looked as superb as it does here thanks to a sharp looking restoration and end 4K digital presentation. A fantastic upgrade over Warner’s previous Blu-ray edition.

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4K UHD Blu-ray/Blu-ray
3 Discs | BD-50/UHD-100
1.85:1 ratio
English 5.1 DTS-HD MA Surround
Subtitles: English
Regions A/None
HDR: Dolby Vision
 
 Audio commentary from 2005 featuring director Spike Lee, Ernest Dickerson, editor Barry Brown, and costume designer Ruth E. Carter   New conversation between Spike Lee and journalist and screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper   New interview with actor Delroy Lindo   New interview with composer Terence Blanchard   Program about the making of the film, featuring Spike Lee, Ernest Dickerson, Barry Brown, Terence Blanchard, Ruth E. Carter, filmmaker Martin Scorsese, actor Ossie Davis, Reverend Al Sharpton, former Warner Bros. executive Lucy Fisher, producers Preston Holmes and Jon Kilik, production designer Wynn Thomas, casting director Robi Reed, and Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz   Malcolm X (1972), a feature-length documentary produced by Marvin Worth and Arnold Perl and directed by Perl, narrated by actor James Earl Jones   Deleted scenes with introductions by Spike Lee   Trailer   An essay by Barry Michael Cooper, excerpts from Spike Lee's 1992 book By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of “Malcolm X” . . ., and Ossie Davis’s eulogy for Malcolm X