Anatomy of Film Acting: Denzel Washington in "Malcolm X"
By Omar P.L. Moore/        SHARE
Monday, February 16, 2009

Denzel Washington's career-making performance as Malcolm X in Spike Lee's same-titled epic biopic of 1992 is        stunning not only for its power and complexity but also for its verisimilitude to the real and passionate human  rights activist leader who made multiple revolutions and evolutions in his life before being assassinated tragically on Sunday, February 21, 1965 prior to his 40th birthday, at the Audubon Ballroom in Upper Manhattan.  The fateful scene is recreated by Mr. Lee and Mr. Washington in "Malcolm X" and remains difficult to watch some 45 years later.  Preceding it is the full-length version of Sam Cooke's extraordinary song "A Change Is Gonna Come", with Mr. Washington re-living Mr. X's final hours.

It's still hard to understand just how Denzel Washington's phenomenal turn as the Black Nationalist leader did not win the Oscar in 1993 for Best Actor.  Politics within the Academy's membership no doubt came into play, with Al Pacino winning for a role (in "Scent Of A Woman") that was far from his best work.  Mr. Lee's amazing film chronicles the ever-changing Omaha-born man from his incarnation as a poverty- stricken straight A-student to fun-loving Homeboy to the hustler, pimp and drug user Detroit Red to the imprisoned Satan to Minister Malcolm X to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.  Mr. Lee's film is highly faithful to The Autobiography Of Malcolm X, still one of the world's most-read books of all time. 

And Mr. Washington's acting is essentially Malcolm, as well as the six or so other roles he plays in the film in Malcolm Little's journey from boy to hustler to prisoner to man to activist to Pan-African leader and spiritual figure.

For his work in Mr. Lee's epic Mr. Washington who has won two Oscars -- one supporting, the other leading -- was awarded a Silver Bear Best Actor award from the Berlinale (Berlin Film Festival) in 2003.


As Detroit Red, Mr. Washington captures a man with a harsh streak.  Red, named so because he had naturally red hair, is fearless and unpredictable yet contemptuous of women, treating every female regardless of race in a mistrustful and chauvinistic manner.  Mr. Washington enthuses the role with an unabashed confidence and turn-on-a-dime menace that sears the screen.  Only West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo) and Sophia (Kate Vernon) are able to tame Red, although there's a scene in which Detroit Red smolders with a mix of anger and vindication when he tells his girlfriend Sophia to feed him and kiss his feet.  Mr. Washington is raw here, enveloping his character in the racial dynamics of his interaction with a white woman in 1940's America, just prior to one of the most conservative decades of the twentieth century in the U.S. -- the 1950's -- during which Emmett Till, a black teenager who merely looked in the direction of a white woman and smiled was lynched then brutally massacred and mutilated beyond recognition in Mississippi, before being drowned in the Mississippi River.

"Never cross a man that isn't afraid to die," Detroit Red says to an initial adversary, and as we see, Red isn't afraid in the slightest.

Satan is angrier, and Denzel Washington puts a devil-may-care-but-I-don't attitude into him.  At this point the actor has shed the sleek, stylish skin that contained Detroit Red and unleashed a volatile demon in Satan, called so by cellmates because he was an atheist and abhorred religion.  Mr. Washington makes Satan a feral being, a caged rat who kicks, shouts and rails against the Christian teachings of Chaplain Gil (Christopher Plummer).  He is an angry itinerant but transitions as a doggedly self-educated man behind bars.  Flickers of enlightenment and articulation surface in Mr. Washington's character as the actor tries to purge the toxic anger of Satan out of his system and    replenish his surly disposition with something more edifying and life-affirming.


Mr. Washington conjures a mix of son and disciple of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (played by Al Freeman Jr.)  Given an "X" to represent his unknown last name as a member of the Nation Of Islam, a membership of black Muslims as former drug dealers, users, illiterates, abusers or criminals, Malcolm becomes Minister Malcolm X, a figure grooming himself for leadership under Mr. Muhammad's tutelage.  In his portrayal the former St. Elsewhere star employs discipline and purpose, combining it with rigid adherence and obeisance, so thoroughly committed to the cause that he is blinded from seeing what's coming around the corner.  He is incendiary in his climb to the top of the ranks but Mr. Washington's "X" isn't as virulently outspoken about white people as the real Malcolm X of the Nation Of Islam was, when he had characterized whites as "blue-eyed devils".

"If Mr. Muhammad had committed any crime punishable by death, I would have tried to prove I did it to save him.  I would have gladly gone to the electric chair in his place," intones Mr. Washington's Malcolm during the film.


Following his suspension and silencing from the Nation Of Islam, Malcolm X leaves the organization and announces his founding of a new organization called the Organization Of Afro American Unity (OAAU), a political group designed to unify African-Americans and to bridge the gap between African-Americans and Africans on the continent of Africa.  For this section of the film Denzel Washington injects a calm, measured tone as post-Nation Malcolm X, becoming a greater, more evolutionary figure.  A fact-finder, Malcolm embarks upon a pilgrimage to Mecca, discovering true Islam while there, realizing that Muslims were a brotherhood of all races and discovering that whites who sat alongside him had neither hate nor racism in their hearts.  There is an inescapable nobility and stature that Mr. Washington possesses in his character during this soul-searching pilgrimage or hajj, when his new name is El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.  He renounces everything bad that he has said about black people such as Dr. Martin Luther King, and whites in general.  "I am not a racist.  And I do not subscribe to any of the tenets of racism," Mr. Washington's character announces in a letter from Mecca.


By the time Malcolm returns from Mecca to his Queens, New York home in May 1964 with a renewed outlook and worldview, endless death threats and a fire-bombed house are on the horizon.  It is here that Mr. Washington reaches the pinnacle of his acting prowess utilizing the anger, intelligence and dynamism of his earlier transformations, channeling them all into the newly spiritual man who had grown in stature, recognition and respect around the world even as he was still deeply feared by both blacks and whites.  "The American Negro can never be blamed for his racial animosities.  He's only reacting to 400 years of oppression and discrimination.  But as racism leads America up the suicidal path I do believe that the younger generation will see the handwriting on the wall and many of them will want to turn to the spiritual path of the truth -- the only way left in this world to ward off the disaster that racism must surely lead to," narrates Mr. Washington as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.


In this famous photo recreated here by Mr. Lee and Mr. Washington (above), Malcolm X is now defending his home against attackers and death threats made against him and his family.  Mr. Washington's Malcolm has now become a hunted man.  The actor builds a courageous front for this endangered Malcolm: fearful yet defiant, resolute but resigned.  "This is a time for martyrs now," he says -- some of the last words that Mr. X himself would ever speak.

"Malcolm X" was released on November 18, 1992 in the U.S. and Canada.  The film grossed just over $48 million, costing about $33 million.  Mr. Lee solicited monies from numerous celebrities to make that budget after Warner Brothers refused to give him any further funding beyond the $28 million it had furnished the film, threatening to shut down the production.  The film is available in a special tenth anniversary edition on DVD.

Photos above from "Malcolm X" -- screenshots by Omar P.L. Moore via David Lee and Warner Brothers.


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