Denzel Washington deservedly won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1989’s Glory, but he should’ve won the big one for his portrayal of the different facets of Malcolm X: the young hoodlum, the fiery Nation of Islam fanatic, and the ripe, righteous, deeply complex leader of his later years.
The three-hour plus epic Malcolm X, based on Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, is, arguably, Spike Lee’s best movie, but the way Lee fought with black nationalists (afraid of Lee’s handling of Malcolm’s early life) and studio powers (over budgetary issues) is the stuff of legends.
With Universal Studios (“the plantation,” according to Lee) and the bond company all over his ass to film Malcolm’s Mecca pilgrimage in Arizona (!), Lee blew up and called up his rich friends. Bill Cosby, Oprah, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Janet Jackson, Prince, and others all pitched in and saved the movie, which included the key pilgrimage scene in Saudi Arabia.
Lee was right. A lot has been said about Malcolm’s transformation from prison inmate to clean-as-they-come Black Muslim (the movie even devotes two full hours to that stage of his life), but Malcolm’s greatest transformation took place in Mecca, rather than in prison.
Upon his return to the States, Malcolm X was a changed man. “In the past, yes, I have made sweeping indictments of all white people,” Malcolm said in a press conference. “I never will be guilty of that again — as I know now that some white people are truly sincere, that some truly are capable of being brotherly toward a black man. The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against blacks. Yes, I have been convinced that some American whites do want to help cure the rampant racism which is on the path to destroying this country!”
Less than a year after this statement, in 1965, he was assassinated. But the movie’s use of actual footage of the reaction of Martin Luther King, Jr. (himself murdered three years later) and a must-see cameo appearance by Nelson Mandela, give credibility to a much-maligned man who, in fact, was one of the most remarkable social, religious, and political leaders America — and the world — has ever known.
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