In 1940s Boston, Malcolm Little (Denzel Washington) wanted his hair to be straight, so he sat down in the barber's chair and allowed his best friend Shorty (Spike Lee) to apply the cream. He wasn't too bothered at first, no matter what the other staff and patrons told him, but after about a minute the sensation grew mightily painful and he had to rush to the sink to wash the stuff out. The result? Malcolm could straighten his hair, and now all he needed was fashion advice from Shorty to pick out the right suit and hat so they could paint the town red, but his background was something that he could not deny, so for all the hedonism of these years there remained something that would point him in a very different direction...
The biopic of controversial Afro-American political leader Malcolm X took decades to reach the screen, during which time it passed through the hands of many white directors, but come the early nineties it seemed only right that the most high profile black American director around should be given the job, and he was Spike Lee. He had already made the most waves with his film Do the Right Thing, an unahsamedly volatile and provocative look at a cauldron of race relations boiling over in one community, so making this seemed a natural progression as the same thing was happening in the time frame depicted in the movie, only taking a whole nation as its community rather than simply one neighbourhood. There was a lot to be said for the influence the civil rights clashes had on the ensuing decades.
Not least because in the months prior to this film's release, the subject of institutional racism had hit the headlines once again when the black Rodney King was beaten viciously by a group of white cops - unfortunately for them, they had been captured on video by a bystander, and that's the footage edited into the opening titles, Lee pointing out how relevant the issues raised remained. That was the sort of audacity and rabble-rousing you'd expect from Lee, yet oddly the rest of the film displayed just how conservative a filmmaker he could be for all his hot topic button pushing as while there were instances of him exercising his talent for a setpiece in a variety of styles (including musicals), much of the way X was portrayed was in sober, considered, almost lecturing fashion. At times there was no "almost" about it, and we were being offered an education in the subject.
Some might point to the way Lee crowbarred himself into the tale as evidence of an ego getting out of control, for his is the first character we see and he tutors Malcolm in the art of cool, but Shorty is not as integral to the plot as he might appear in the opening act as the lead's criminal past was examined. Lee tended to shy away from the less savoury aspects of his subject's behaviour, but to his credit we were well aware that he could be pretty nasty when the mood took him, though it was clear his background had brought him to this state of mind. And by background that was the ingrained racism he grew up suffering from a society which was still struggling to come to terms with its far from admirable elements; Lee, basing this on the Alex Hailey biography, blames the Ku Klux Klan for Malcolm's early troubles, then goes on to illustrate this was not an isolated case and such bigotry extended right up into the echelons of the law and government.
When Malcolm ends up in prison, he turns his life around thanks to a fictional character (played by Albert Hall) who introduces him to the Nation of Islam - actually Malcolm found his way to spirituality under his own steam. Here the film grows didactic as scene after scene comes across like an advertisement for the organisation, yet they are important to allow us to understand how this newfound belief fired up Malcolm, especially politically, though quibblers could point out Lee was glossing over the harder to take aspects of the religion's tenets, and their intolerant attitudes towards women and Jews, for example. Things kept moving, very important in a work lasting over three hours, and by the time we have arrived at that last part the hero has not so much mellowed as had his eyes opened to the fact that preaching aggressive protest and separatism was not going to work out. His enlightenment on a pilgrimage to Mecca was respectfully filmed, and Lee made it obvious this put him at odds at those who called him "brother" then turned against him with violence, leaving the sense of a man influencing the future yet tragically not allowed in it. Oddly restrained. Music by Terence Blanchard.
Talented, prolific American director who has courted more controversy than most with his out-spoken views and influenced an entire generation of black film-makers. Lee made his impressive debut with the acerbic sex comedy She's Gotta Have It in 1986, while many consider his study of New York race relations Do the Right Thing to be one of the best films of the 80s.
Lee's films tend to mix edgy comedy and biting social drama, and range from the superb (Malcolm X, Clockers, Summer of Sam) to the less impressive (Mo Better Blues, Girl 6), but are always blessed with passion and intelligence. Lee has acted in many of his films and has also directed a wide range of music videos, commercials and documentaries. Inside Man saw a largely successful try at the thriller genre, Oldboy was a misguided remake, but he welcomed some of his best reactions of his career to true crime story BlacKkKlansman.