First there was Do the Right Thing (1989), then there was Bamboozled (2000), and now, for the third entry into the Criterion Collection, writer/director/actor Spike Lee’s Oscar-nominated Malcom X (1992) joins the illustrious physical format boutique distributor nearly 30 years after the theatrical release. While not coded as an anniversary release, the included materials and the timing of release as both 4K UHD and Blu-ray certainly do imply a celebration, both of the film and the people who created it. Not only are there legacy materials (a 2005 commentary track, a 30-minute making-of doc, and the feature-length Malcolm X documentary from 1972), this edition includes three brand-new interviews, nine deleted scenes, a brand-new audio mix, and HDR on the 4K disc. All the things longtime fans of Lee’s masterful work would want in a new home release.
Adapted from the 1965 novel The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley written by Malcom X and Alex Haley (Roots), Lee tracks the life of Malcom Little from youth to tragic death via a mixture of time-jumps, flashbacks, and theatrical cues. All of these work together to convey a sense that Malcolm was cognizant of his own fate, that he was a person of purpose, and that his various faults were merely the experiential bricks that became the foundation of a spiritual and movement leader. Unlike other autobiographical tales, this one doesn’t shirk from or diminish the faults, nor does it exalt them, opting to present, without judgement, the full weight of who Malcolm is as a record against the majority view.
The timing of the film is apropos given the heightened state of racial tension in the United States of America. As performed by frequent Lee collaborator Denzel Washington (Mo’ Better Blues; He Got Game; Inside Man), Malcolm X gives a speech in which he states that the Black community is not American, by birth or otherwise, because they were stolen and brought to this country. In another scene, there’s a discussion of the system they are brought up in, the ways in which their entire perspective is decided before they were even born due to the bias of the creators of the system. In another, the idea that Jesus, G-d, and all the other parts of faith are misused and misguided because they stem from a lie that all of it is guided by a White hand. Each of these aspects make a film that’s already electric in the way Lee builds his narrative of Malcolm Lee, teenage hoodlum to cultural leader, more powerful and quite sad, especially when one considers that the his fights continue to this day. Granted, Ronald Dalton’s 2014 book “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America!” goes a step to far, suggesting that being Jewish is the birthright of the African community and it’s another thing stolen from them. Admittedly, there’s something to be said about the reality that the stories of the Torah and New Testament took place in Africa and areas of the Middle East, making the forefathers and mothers of Judaism far darker in skin tone than the Ewan McGregor-looking Jesus painted by Warner Sallman in 1941 that most know in these modern times. But unless these same people choose to start practicing the faith of their supposed people, it comes across as little more than an antisemitic act, an erasure of a people. Though this may seem like a non sequitur, bringing this up matters when one considers the presentation of Malcolm during his trip to Mecca where he met Muslims of varying race, shifting his perception of what a Muslim *must be* into what a Muslim *could be.* A read of this is that it brought him more peace, that there are not more enemies but the possibility of more friends. To that end, the common enemy among the American Black community and Jewish population is not each other, but those who would twist, block, or otherwise destroy the truth in favor of maintaining the status quo. When one chooses to explore the history of the European view of America, the way it brought in immigrants to build means of transportation from one coast to another, to build cities and houses for people as they left one state for another, only to have those same immigrants demonized and governmentally regulated, Malcolm’s message of unification against governmental subjugation doesn’t seem radical, but the only sensible thing one can do.
Regarding the home release itself, there are only two options to select from: standard Blu-ray or 4K UHD. The review copy sent by Criterion is the Blu-ray, so this review cannot address that edition beyond what the press notes say and past experience with their 4K UHD releases. For instance, the 4K UHD Night of the Living Dead release last month contained three discs, so, my guess is that the 4K UHD edition of Malcom X will be the same, with the Blu-ray only containing two: one for the feature and one for the bulk of the bonus materials. There is also a booklet containing a wonderful essay from screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper (New Jack City; Sugar Hill; Above the Rim) that contextualizes the film’s behind the scenes history, Malcolm’s history, and his own anecdotal experience between both, creating a striking and illuminating read. Additionally, there’s an excerpt from Lee’s 1992 book By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of “Malcolm X” . . . , Ozzie Davis’s eulogy for Malcolm X, and the usually remaster information.
As mentioned, on disc one is the feature film, which has been remastered in Dolby Vision HDR for the 4K UHD edition and high-definition SDR on the Blu-ray. The remaster was created from a 35 mm film negative and supervised by three individuals, including cinematographer Ernest Dickerson. As it relates to the sound and picture of the Blu-ray, everything looks and sounds as one expects from the format with the dialogue clear and crisp, the sound design wonderfully immersive in a 5.1 home theater set-up, and the colors lovely. Some sequences have a bit more visible grain than others, but nothing that will be too distracting from the watch. In addition to the feature, included on disc one is a previously released feature-length commentary track with Lee, Dickerson, editor Barry Alexander Brown, and costume designer Ruth E. Carter.
On the second disc is where the rest of the bonus features lie and there is more new than old available. For long-time fans of the film or just of Lee and his frequent collaborators, the three 2022 interviews should be your first stop. In each one, audiences are given a unique perspective into the making of the film. The first is between Lee and Cooper who have a relationship before this Criterion release, as Cooper wrote the forward for the Do the Right Thing companion book, enabling for a very familiar back-and-forth between the pair. The other two interviews, actor Delroy Lindo (16:43) and composer Terence Blanchard (18:44), are structured more like a talking head interview where the subject speaks to an unseen and unheard individual while images and scenes from this film and other works are intercut. Both Lindo and Blanchard have worked with Lee numerous times, yet the stories they tell here (like Lindo being able to play someone of his own Jamaican descent or Blanchard fibbing his way through writing music for instruments he doesn’t know) convey a sense that working on Malcom X was particularly special. The remaining materials on this disc (the deleted scenes, the Malcolm X documentary, and Any Means Necessary 30-minute featurette) are all legacy materials from prior releases.
As mentioned, the timing of this release is auspicious. Not only is it the 30th anniversary, not only is it considered one of Lee’s best works, and not only is it still a powerful watch, but the content within it strikes as powerfully hot today as it did in 1992. Admittedly, this Criterion review is the first time this reviewer watched the film and, having seen so many others, one is not so impressed by the techniques Lee used then that he’s so frequently used since, but there’s no debating the efficacy or impact of any singular moment or use. Each one still hits hard, even if it feels like checking off a list. That said, this reviewer hopes that, with Malcolm X joining Criterion, that perhaps the next film of his to release would be the incredible 2020 Da 5 Bloods as Criterion and Netflix have a relationship now. Lee certainly has other works worthy of the Criterion experience, but, coming off the heels of this one, Da 5 Bloods feels thematically appropriate. Only time will tell what the fourth Lee addition will be and that’s not an if, but a when.
Malcolm X Special Features:
- New 4K digital restoration, supervised by cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack
- One 4K UHD disc of the film presented in Dolby Vision HDR and two Blu-rays with the film and special features
- *New* conversation between Lee and journalist and screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper (25:49)
- *New* interview with actor Delroy Lindo (16:43)
- *New* interview with composer Terence Blanchard (18:44)
- Audio commentary from 2005 featuring director Spike Lee, Dickerson, editor Barry Alexander Brown, and costume designer Ruth E. Carter
- Any Means Necessary: The Making of “Malcolm X” – Program about the making of the film, featuring Lee, Dickerson, Brown, Blanchard, Carter, filmmaker Martin Scorsese, actor Ossie Davis, Reverend Al Sharpton, former Warner Bros. executive Lucy Fisher, producers Preston Holmes and Jon Kilik, production designer Wynn Thomas, casting director Robi Reed, and Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz (30:28)
- Malcolm X (1972), a feature-length documentary produced by Marvin Worth and Arnold Perl and directed by Perl, narrated by actor James Earl Jones (1:31:41)
- Nine (9) Deleted scenes with introductions by Lee (20:41)
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by Cooper, excerpts from Lee’s 1992 book By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of “Malcolm X” . . ., and Davis’s eulogy for Malcolm X
- New cover by Eric Skillman
Available on 4K UHD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection November 22nd, 2022.
For additional information on the film itself, head to the Warner Bros. Pictures Malcolm X webpage.