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Malcolm X (Criterion Collection)

The Criterion Collection // R // November 22, 2022
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by William Harrison | posted January 18, 2023 | E-mail the Author


In celebration of the film's 30th birthday, the Criterion Collection releases Spike Lee's seminal biographical drama Malcolm X in a definitive edition that collectors will certainly appreciate adding to their film libraries. With a screenplay written by Lee and Arnold Perl that is based on Malcolm X's 1965 autobiography, the film offers a career-best performance from Denzel Washington and a powerful exploration of the American activist's life and beliefs. Lee's epic tracks its subject's life from childhood through his assassination in 1965, diving deep into the events that formed Malcolm X and depicting these civil rights-era conflicts with grace and attention to detail. At 201 minutes, Malcolm X is a lengthy sit, but Lee and company created a film that not only offers important discourse but is consistently, dramatically entertaining.

Washington tends to draw attention toward him in every performance he gives, from his corrupt detective in Training Day to his drunken and flawed but talented pilot in Flight to the ring as Rubin "The Hurricane Carter" in The Hurricane. Often, Washington is the best thing about a film, even when the screenplay or his fellow actors do not rise to the occasion. Malcolm X is not such a film, though Washington is certainly a damned impressive anchor. Born Malcolm Little in rural Michigan, the future civil-rights leader was raised by a Grenadian mother and African-American father, who would later be murdered by a chapter of the Black Legion, sending Malcolm's mother into despair and mental instability. Washington arrives on screen as a rowdy teenaged Malcolm in 1944 Boston, where he dates a rebellious white woman and gets involved in a numbers racket for a local gangster. Malcolm, girlfriend Sophia (Kate Vernon) and friends Shorty (Spike Lee) and Peg (Debi Mazar) start robbing houses to make money, but are soon caught. The white women get two years in prison each, while Malcolm and Shorty get at least eight. In prison, Malcolm meets Baines (Albert Hall), a member of the Nation of Islam who changes his destiny by introducing him to the group's leader, Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.).

The film then sees Malcolm after he is paroled, following him to Chicago where he meets Muhammad and adopts the name Malcolm X, which symbolizes his lost African surname that was stripped from him by white slave owners. He begins preaching black separatism in Harlem, telling followers that the white man is entirely responsible for the mistreatment of his race and that the unifying messages of leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. simply will not work to free their continued bonds. After marrying nurse Betty Sanders (Angela Bassett) and having four daughters together, Malcolm rises to a powerful leadership role in the Nation of Islam. Muhammad's keepers believe Malcolm is getting too powerful, and Malcom begins losing faith in his mentor after learning he has fathered many children out of wedlock. After President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in 1963, Malcolm makes callous remarks about the murder, prompting his suspension from the Nation of Islam. He ultimately travels to Mecca and meets Muslims from many races and origins, leading him to change his message and found the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which abandons separatist rhetoric for messages of tolerance and unity between blacks and other races. This causes members of the Nation of Islam to target Malcolm and his family, and leads to violence and tragedy.

Lee's ambitious drama spans decades for Malcolm, and does a wonderful job moving through many events without ever becoming a shallow greatest-hits biography. The film weaves in important characters expertly, and allows Malcolm to maintain his humanity, even at his most outwardly militant. I have always appreciated Lee as a filmmaker, even when he gets too bogged down in the message. This is not that kind of film either, and Malcolm X is informative, dramatically powerful and wholly entertaining. The pace is lively and purposeful; the sets, music, costumes, and performances are captivating; and Washington gives a fully developed performance that will far outlast his time on this planet. Lee allows viewers to question whether violence is required to affect change; whether Malcolm was right in his beliefs and their execution. The film sees its subject falter and it offers the flawed leader a chance for redemption. It does not suggest you must feel one way or the other; Lee presents his powerful subject without forcing a particular message. Malcolm X's tragic end is almost a certainty given his controversial delivery and dogged advocacy. Every friend he made led to two enemies as he navigated the turbulent times he was born into. This is an exceptional film and is one of Lee and Washington's absolute best.



Criterion bests the decade-old Blu-ray releases of this film by offering a new 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image that is the product of a 4K restoration supervised by cinematographer Ernest Dickerson. This is a wonderfully filmic presentation that offers abundant detail and texture. The costumes and sets are luminous in close-up shots, which also reveal intimate facial details. Grain is natural throughout, and the film looks great in motion. Wider, outdoor shots are impressively deep and detailed, and several of Malcom's speeches are positively cinematic in this presentation. Colors are nicely saturated, and the disc handles black levels, highlights and shadow detail well. I noticed some minor aliasing in one scene and brief grain spikes in a few darker shots, but this is overall a wonderful presentation.


The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is recycled but remains immersive and impressive. While this is a dialogue-heavy film, there are certainly dramatic moments of violence; powerful, rousing speeches; and plenty of instances where ambient noise plays into the narrative. The surrounds are given a workout throughout, and viewers are placed amid the action constantly. Dialogue is clear and crisp, and I noticed no issues with overcrowding or distortion. The score and musical selections are deep and resonant, and all elements are balanced expertly. Optional English SDH subtitles are included.


This two-disc release comes in the standard Criterion clear case with two-sided artwork and a multi-page booklet. The only extra on the first disc is a 2005 Commentary by Director Spike Lee, Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, editor Barry Alexander Brown, and Costume Designer Luther E. Carter. The second disc offers three newly produced extras: Spike Lee in Conversation (25:49/HD), a sit-down with Lee and journalist Barry Michael Cooper that offers excellent detail about the film; Actor Delroy Lindo (16:42/HD) is a newly shot interview with the actor about the film and his previous work with Lee; and Terence Blanchard (18:43/HD) is a conversation with the composer about his frequent collaborations with Lee. Legacy extras include By Any Means Necessary: The Making of Malcolm X (30:27/SD); Deleted Scenes (20:41 total/SD); Malcolm X 1972 Documentary (91:41/SD); and a Theatrical Trailer (2:49/HD).


A seminal film for Director Spike Lee and star Denzel Washington, Malcolm X offers a powerful exploration of the activist's life and the events that shaped it. Washington's performance is transcendent, and Lee crafts a powerful, informative, and entertaining film that covers difficult social issues without pandering. Now part of the Criterion Collection, this release earns the distinction of DVD Talk Collector Series

William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.

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