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.
The Criterion Collection presents Spike Lee’s Malcom X on Blu-ray, delivering the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on the first dual-layer disc of this two-disc set. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation has been sourced from a new 4K restoration, scanned from the 35mm original camera negative. Criterion has devoted the entirety of the first disc to the film, presenting all of the bonus video features on the second dual-layer disc. I am working from the Blu-ray discs included with the 4K edition, which offer the exact same content as what the standard Blu-ray edition provides. The Blu-ray edition comes in a standard two-disc Scanavo case (the 4K comes in a digi-pak) and of course lacks the 4K disc. The releases are otherwise the same.
Very minor issues aside Criterion’s new high-def presentation looks excellent ,and it delivers a significant boost over Warner’s previous edition that utilized a dated master. This new presentation is far sharper (at least overall) and delivers a film-like consistency through its running time thanks to the improved grain rendering (though I’ll touch on this again in a bit). The restoration has also cleaned up things significantly and outside of damage present in archival material there are no significant flaws or marks to report. Even the footage from Oliver Stone’s JFK (used to depict Kennedy’s assassination in this film) looks fine. The only moments where the materials look a bit off is during the opening section of the film (which looks softer by design, director of photography Ernest R. Dickerson giving this section of the film a unique look) and a scene in a mosque where burned-in subtitles are employed. During this portion there is a slightly dupier look compared to the rest of the film, suggesting a later generation print was used for this small section.
Where I was expecting some issue was in the digital encode since the film has a rather lengthy runtime at 201-minutes. Wisely, Criterion has devoted the entire disc to the film, giving it a lot of room to breath and I think it helps. The encode has some slight issues in places but on the whole I ended up being rather impressed. Grain is rendered in a mostly clean manner, even managing to come out looking fine in the shadows. There is a sequence where young Malcolm (Denzel Washington) is in solitary confinement and on occasion light will leak into the pitch-black room. Impressively the encode handles this sequence well, along with other darker sequences, blending the grain into the shadows in a mostly clean manner. I can’t say I noticed any banding, excessive noise or macroblocking. Grain can look a bit noisy in other areas, though, like the opening sequences that are supposed to take place at sunrise (Lee strutting down the street in his zoot suit), and the encode can have problems rendering brighter reds alongside deeper blacks.
Despite those minor issues I found this Blu-ray presentation a sharp looking one, with it again offering a huge improvement over Warner's very dated presentation.
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.
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 all of the supplements can be found this release’s second dual-layer disc.
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 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.
Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition provides a sharper, more film-like presentation compared to Warner’s previous Blu-ray release.