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Blu-ray Review Malcolm X Blu-ray Review

Discussion in 'Blu-ray and UHD' started by Ken_McAlinden, Feb 2, 2012.

  1. Ken_McAlinden

    Ken_McAlinden Producer

    Feb 20, 2001
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    Livonia, MI USA
    Real Name:
    Kenneth McAlinden
    Capsule/Summary ****½

    Spike Lee's Malcolm X arrives on Blu-ray just in time for its 20th Anniversary in classy hardcover book packaging. The high definition video and audio for the feature film are top notch. On-disc extras are identical to the previously released two-disc SD DVD of the film, inclusive of an informative filmmaker commentary, a solid half hour retrospective featurette, a generous sampling of deleted scenes, the film's theatrical trailer, and, best of all, the Oscar nominated feature length documentary from 1972 also entitled Malcolm X.

    Malcolm X


    Directed By: Spike Lee

    Starring: Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Angela Bassett, Al Freeman, Jr., Delroy Lindo

    Studio: Warner Bros.

    Year: 1992

    Rated: PG-13

    Film Length: 202 minutes

    Aspect Ratio: 16:9

    Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish

    Release Date: January 31, 2012

    The Film ****½

    Spike Lee's 1992 epic biopic, Malcolm X adapts The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley to trace the story of the complex and charismatic civil rights leader's life. It moves roughly chronologically through his childhood marked by oppressive racism, on to a period of fast living and petty crime as a young man in Boston and New York which ends in his incarceration. In jail, he is introduced to the teachings of The Nation of Islam, which eventually transform his life as he emerges over the subsequent decade as a popular and effective leader and advocate for the Nation of Islam's militantly pro-black philosophy. Malcolm's transformation continues through the film's final acts as a rift with the leadership of the Nation of Islam and a pilgrimage to Mecca result in a more expansive view of both his religion and his approach to African unity that puts him at odds with some potentially dangerous former allies.

    Malcolm X was a "bucket list" project for its writer-director Spike Lee, and, after aggressively pursuing the film, which had arguably been in "Development Hell" with various producers and directors attached since Lee himself was a teenager, he seized the moment to make what many consider to be his best film. In the minds of Lee and many of his long-time collaborators who worked on the film, it was viewed as a culmination of all of they had achieved over the previous six years.

    Chief among its virtues is an excellent cast headlined by Denzel Washington in the title role. Washington reportedly had cleared his schedule for several months in order to prepare for the role, and the results are apparent on the screen. Washington's performance not only channels Malcolm X to the point of turning a passing resemblance into an uncanny resemblance, but he also hits the right notes throughout the film's dramatization of the twists and turns of Malcolm X's personal journey to make the sudden changes in direction and philosophy seem organic and internally consistent. This is an accomplishment that has eluded many a broadly scoped biopic before and since, and can only be achieved when an actor, director, and editors are all working in concert with a clear and consistent vision for the film as a whole.

    The supporting cast features strong performances in roles large and small with Delroy Lindo, Al Freeman Jr., Albert Hall, and Angela Bassett turning in particularly noteworthy turns. The weakest link in the supporting cast is, no surprise, Lee himself, but his character of Shorty, a composite of friends from Malcolm's hustling pre-prison life, appears infrequently and is portrayed less broadly comically in the film's later acts.

    The film is technically accomplished, with impressive production design (by Wynn Thomas) and costumes (by Ruth Carter) that evoke the decades-spanning periods and locations. Ernest Dickerson's cinematography not only complements these design elements, but supports the thematic and emotional content of each scene through selective use of filters and lighting set-ups. In only his second ever film score, Composer Terence Blanchard also brings his A-game.

    Probably the biggest criticism the film received at the time of its release revolved around Lee's decision to incorporate topical elements into the film's opening and closing credits including footage of the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles Police Officers during the film's opening and a closing sequence featuring Nelson Mandela. While Lee's stated intent for these inclusions was to underline the relevance of Malcolm X's life to modern times (and his unstated intent, particularly in the case of the King footage, was no doubt related to his desire to be provocative), they were hardly necessary to establish relevance and actually date the film when viewed from a perspective of twenty years later. Considering the effort that went into meticulously re-creating the '40s, 50s, and '60s in the film, these specifically '90s elements seem, ironically, anachronistic. That being said, their presence as brief bookends amounts to at worst a very mild distraction from the three hours plus of outstanding filmmaking in between them.

    The Video *****

    This 1080p AVC-encoding approximates the film's original theatrical aspect ratio by filling the entire 16:9 frame. The film has a number of distinct cinematic looks, and this outstanding presentation captures the subtleties of each of them about as well as one could hope for on home video. If one listens to the included audio commentary, cinematographer Ernest Dickinson goes into great detail to describe filtering and lighting techniques for specific sequences of the film. This was the case with the two-disc DVD release as well, but the subtle differences are much more obvious in this near-pristine high definition presentation. The scene where Malcolm, out of prison, first meets The Honorable Elijah Muhammad is particularly striking since it is the first scene in a long time at that point in the film (if not the first scene full-stop) that has absolutely no filtering of the filmed image.

    The Audio ****½

    The film's sound mix is provided courtesy of a DTS-HD MA lossless 5.1 multi-channel encoding and the upgrade from the previous lossy track on DVD is quite impressive. The score is very well recorded and benefits tremendously from the lossless encoding. Attentive listeners will be able to appreciate subtle differences in quality between the recording of the film score and various other pieces of music used in the film's soundtrack. The 5.1 sound field is not always exploited as fully as it could be, but the mix is impressive nonetheless, particularly for a film from 1992 that pre-dated widespread use of discrete digital surround formats. Alternate language tracks are presented in Dolby Digtal 2.0 stereo in French, Spanish, and Italian.

    The Extras ****

    For this 20th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray, Warner has reproduced all of the extras from the previous 2-disc SD DVD edition. They are spread across a blu-ray, inclusive of the film, and a second SD DVD disc. All of the extras are presented in 16:9 480i SD video with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound unless otherwise indicated below. There is no new special feature content above and beyond that from the 2005 Two-Disc Special Edition DVD.

    Disc One (50GB dual-layer Blu-ray Disc)

    Under the menu heading of "Behind the Story", are the following features:

    Audio Commentary from Spike Lee, Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, Editor/Second Unit Director Barry Alexander Brown, and Costume Designer Ruth Brown features all of the participants recorded separately. While it lacks the spark of interplay found from commentaries where participants interact, it more than compensates for it thanks to an impressive comprehensiveness. Despite the film's three hour and twenty minute run time, the commentary is consistently interesting with no significant lulls or lapses into simple descriptions of on-screen action from the opening titles through deep into the closing credits. It is definitely worth a listen for fans of the film and/or film-making in general. Overlap with the documentary featurette is inevitable, but surprisingly minimal.

    By Any Means Necessary: The Making of Malcolm X (30:24) is a making of featurette produced by Gary Leva and narrated by James Earl Jones. Through the usual combination of film clips, behind the scenes footage, and talking head interviews, it spins a fairly compelling and roughly chronological narrative of the film's genesis. Topics covered include Spike Lee's efforts to get the assignment to direct the film, battles over the film's budget with the studio and completion bond company, Denzel Washinhgton, the film's elaborate opening crane and Steadicam shot, Shooting in Egypt and South Africa, Battles over the film's length, the shutting down of production by the completion bond company, the film's revitalization after Lee appealed to prominent celebrities for financial assistance to complete post-production, the film's reception upon release, and the film's legacy. On camera comments are provided by Lee, Dickerson, former Warner Bros Exec VP Worldwide Production Lucy Fisher, Composer Terence Blanchard. Co-Producer Preston Holmes, Marvin Worth (archival), Casting Director Robi Reed, Carter, Co-Producer Jon Kilik, Denzel Washington ("Malcom X"), Brown, Actor/Writer/Activist Ossie Davis, Filmmaker Martin Scorsese, Reverend Al Sharpton, and Daughter of Malcom X/Author Ilyasah Shabazz.

    The following extras are also accessible directly from the Special Features menu:

    Deleted Scenes with Introduction by Spike Lee (20:55 w/"Play All" and Spike Lee intros) is a collection of scenes removed from the film, almost all of them for the sake of run-time. There is a one minute Spike Lee introduction to all of the clips as well as scene specific comments from Lee introducing each individual deleted scene. They are viewable separately or through a "Play All" feature. All of the scenes are interesting, but many were deleted because they developed secondary characters or subplots outside the main narrative thrust of the film. A couple scenes expanding on the courtship between Malcolm and his eventual wife Betty would have gone a long way towards establishing her as more of a well-rounded presence in the finished film. The nine scenes are identified as follows:

    • Malcolm and Shorty watch Cagney and Bogie

    • Sophia and Peg case a house

    • The first colored president of the United States

    • The evils of pork

    • The pleasure if an ice cream soda

    • Malcolm teached Benjamin discipline

    • The Sphinx nose, the Sphinx lips

    • Malcolm must return to America

    • A second chance to answer the question

    Theatrical Trailer (2:48) is an effective promo for the film illustrating its scope and contents. No false advertising in this case.

    Disc Two (Single Layered SD DVD)

    Malcolm X (92 minutes) is an Oscar-nominated feature length documentary from 1972. Director Arnold Perl (who, despite dying before the release of this documentary would receive a co-writing credit twenty years later for Spike Lee's film) assembles the film from copious amounts of archival footage of Malcolm X mixed with occasional interstitial segments of footage establishing the turbulent racial times of the era. Early segments also include footage of speeches from The Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The footage is primarily allowed to stand by itself free of narration aside from excerpts from The Autobiography of Malcolm X read by James Earl Jones and, near the end, Ossie Davis' moving eulogy. The film is a fascinating document of the real Malcolm X that is every bit as compelling as the feature film from two decades later. While Spike Lee was criticized at the time of the release of the 1992 feature for overreaching for modern relevance by including the aforementioned footage of the Rodney King beating in the opening credits, Perl starts his film out no less provocatively with a one-two musical punch of Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit (played over a black screen), and The Last Poet's Niggers Are Scared of Revolution.


    To celebrate the film's 20th anniversary, Warner has afforded it deluxe hardcover book packaging, The two discs are held on hubs on the inner covers of the book. In between are 40 pages with glossy photos from the film's production, a brief essay on the film attributed to no author, biographical blurbs on Lee, Washington, Bassett, Albert Hall, and Al Freeman Jr., a few pages laying out a timeline of key events in the life of Malcolm X, and a page of trivia blurbs with the title Film Facts.
  2. Bryan Tuck

    Bryan Tuck Screenwriter

    Jan 16, 2002
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    Bryan Tuck
    Thanks for the review, Ken! I always meant to get the 2-disc DVD, but never got around to it. Glad to hear the Blu-ray is a quality release.
  3. Guest

    I really like this film and will be and picking it up, but I am hoping for a blu-ray release another little Alex Haley work that a couple of people have heard about.
  4. Dave H

    Dave H Producer

    Aug 13, 2000
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    I'll be picking this up, as well. I'll just wait for a good price drop. Nice review.

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