Denzel Washington received his first Oscar nomination for a leading role in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” (1992), but lost to Al Pacino in “Scent of a Woman.” (Many critics disagreed: Washington was named best actor by the New York Film Critics Circle and the Chicago Film Critics Association, among others.) Almost a decade later, Washington won his first Best Actor Oscar playing the horrifically bent cop Alonzo Harris in “Training Day” (2001).
Prior to “Training Day,” Washington’s screen persona was almost synonymous with heroic or at least sympathetic characters, from early supporting roles in films like “Cry Freedom” and “Glory” to starring roles in films like “Crimson Tide” and “Remember the Titans.”
Washington has said that it was while filming “Devil in a Blue Dress” that he first clearly realized (watching Don Cheadle as charming, psychopathic “Mouse” Alexander) that playing a bad guy could be juicier and more entertaining than playing the good guy.
Fifteen years after “Training Day,” Washington still talks about wanting to shed his good-guy image, despite playing a string of characters ranging from the ambiguous or profoundly flawed (“John Q,” “Flight”) to antiheroes (“Man on Fire,” “2 Guns”) to the outright wicked or criminal (“American Gangster”).
Actually, in “Malcolm X,” Washington plays various facets in the complicated life of the man who first went by Malcolm Little, then Detroit Red, and finally Malcolm X: a jive-talking hustler, petty thief, and finally convict and prisoner; a fiery apostle for Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam’s anti-white religious ideology; a disillusioned ex-disciple refashioning his faith after breaking with the Nation of Islam and discovering a larger Islamic world.
Lee has called “Malcolm X” the movie he was born to make; in some respects, it may be the role Washington was born to play. The actor commits utterly to each stage of Malcolm Little’s life; as Detroit Red, he inhabits his zoot suit and conk (kinky hair chemically relaxed and straightened) as grandly as if he were a supporting character in a gangland picture about West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo), who introduces Malcolm to cocaine and the numbers racket.
In prison, when a stern, dignified disciple of Elijah Muhammad named Baines (Albert Hall) upbraids him for “poisoning” himself with liquor and lye-based hair straightener as well as pork and white women, Malcolm responds with the same jaded, cynical incredulity with which his own former associates will greet his own eventual conversion.
This is Malcolm’s first conversion, and it’s a powerful thing. Malcolm responds slowly and warily, first to Baines’ fearlessness and clear sense of purpose, which slowly persuades him that Baines isn’t just working an angle; then to the eye-opening perspective Baines offers him on culturally pervasive racism; and finally to the moral-spiritual path Baines offers him: a way of self-respect, discipline, study, faith in Allah and in the honorable Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.), and fear of a God who is holy — and black. This offers the starkest contrast to the perceived whiteness of the God of Christians, embodied in the iconography of a blue-eyed, fair-haired Jesus.
Among the formidable acting challenges here is shifting persuasively from Detroit Red’s “‘what-ya-know-daddy’ jive” to Malcolm X’s increasingly measured, literate rhetorical style. Perhaps it comes more naturally to Malcolm because of the influence of his father, a Baptist orator who, before being murdered by Klansmen, advocated the emigration of black Americans to Africa. In any case, Washington doesn’t turn on a dime, but moves by stages, gaining polish and confidence as he goes.
During his Nation of Islam period, Malcolm’s faith fills him both with a righteous zeal to lift up his people, to give them dignity and solidarity, and also with a religious antipathy toward “white devils” — not some whites, but all, and with them “so-called Negro leaders” like Martin Luther King Jr. who advocate nonviolence and harmony between the races.
Malcolm is a true believer, even a zealot, lifting high the banner of Elijah Muhammad with its black-and-white view of, well, white and black. He does so with considerable charisma and eloquence — so much so that Elijah Muhammad’s lieutenants, and then the great messenger himself, begin to see Malcolm less as an asset or a protégé than a rival and a threat.
Malcolm’s implicit faith in the Nation of Islam is challenged as he slowly realizes that Elijah Muhammad is not the pillar of virtue he believed, and that even Baines, his once-zealous prison mentor, has become compromised and corrupted.
Malcolm’s own integrity widens the rift between himself and the Nation, and eventually his own devotion to the Nation’s creed becomes too much for the Nation’s leadership when President Kennedy is assassinated, and Malcolm responds not with the nuance that such a traumatic blow to the national psyche demands, but with his uncompromising remarks about “chickens coming home to roost.”
Here, too, Washington makes Malcolm’s world view psychologically credible and persuasive; although his faith in the Nation’s leadership has broken down, he can’t completely renounce everything he has been until this point, and the next stage of his journey is by no means clear or inevitable.
When I first saw “Malcolm X” in the early 1990s, I felt that his second conversion, in Mecca, upon encountering and praying with Muslims on hajj (pilgrimage) from all over the world — some fair-skinned, light-haired, and blue-eyed — was not as powerfully dramatized as his first conversion in prison.
Watching it now, I find that I see it differently. Lee shows us images of Malcolm’s pilgrimage while the emotional and religious significance is explicated by voiceovers of Malcolm’s letters to his beloved wife Betty (Angela Bassett).
No one instructs, challenges, or disciples him in this new universal form of Islam, as Baines (a fictional character, by the way; it was actually Malcolm’s brother who introduced him to Islam) did with his first prison conversion. There is no need. In prison, Malcolm was not seeking and didn’t know that he was adrift at sea; now he is and does. What matters about the trip to Mecca is less what happens there than how Malcolm interprets it and how it leads him to shift his rhetoric toward whites, and to ask the forgiveness of those black leaders, notably King, he had previously insulted.
I do notice that while the distorted image of Islam put forward in the long middle act is eventually corrected, the same is not true of the distorted image of Christianity, embodied especially by a prison chaplain in a Roman collar played by Christopher Plummer, who calls Malcolm “the devil” and actually says, “God is white, isn’t it obvious?”
We do see archival footage of Martin Luther King Jr. lamenting Malcolm’s assassination. But King is allowed to be a spokesman only for racial unity, not for Christianity.
On the day on his assassination, as Malcolm arrives at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, he has a random encounter with a black woman whose encouragement and promises of prayers he smilingly receives — until she adds, “Jesus will protect you.” When I first saw the film, I took this as mere irony, like Malcolm’s bitter complaints in prison that he had no friend in Jesus; once again, Jesus let Malcolm down.
Now I notice that this line comes at the end of a scene — scored to Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” which includes the line: “It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die / ’Cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky” — that depicts Malcolm as a dead man walking, even literally gliding ghostlike or zombie-like along the sidewalk.
Lee foreshadows Malcolm’s death so heavily that he seems dead already. Malcolm doesn’t scowl at the Christian woman; he simply looks uneasily away. Later, in the dressing room, Malcolm murmurs, “It’s a time for martyrs now,” and frets that he shouldn’t go out onstage.
Is it possible to read Malcolm’s exchange with the woman on the sidewalk as an interreligious suggestion that, despite Malcolm’s Muslim faith, Malcolm can also be regarded as a “martyr” by Christians: that Christians may pray for Jesus’ protection for Malcolm at his judgment “beyond the sky”?
I think that it is.