Anatomy of Film Acting: Denzel Washington in
Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
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
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
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
"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
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
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