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Shelf Life: “Malcolm X”

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The Sundance Film Festival is a bonanza for cinephiles because it offers them a unique and early opportunity to experience movies yet to be released and filmmakers yet to be discovered. But just as much, it’s an opportunity for film fans to reconnect with the artists who inspired them to love the medium in the first place, even as those artists push their work into new, unforaged or at least hopefully more deeply refined territory. And in 2012, no known filmmaker made a deeper impression at Sundance than Spike Lee, whose “Red Hook Summer” polarized audiences even as it demonstrated the director’s return to the sort of material that first helped establish him as a great cinematic voice.

Coincidentally, Lee’s film “Malcolm X” was released on Blu-ray this week, and Warner Home Video did an excellent job of putting together a release that at the very least is worthy of the film’s enormous ambition. But given the fact that it came out near the peak of Lee’s earliest success, and it was released some 20 years ago, when films like this could be incendiary and provocative and yet conventionally satisfying all at once, does “Malcolm X” hold up as a great work of art? Not having seen it in many years, we weren’t sure, but that’s why “Shelf Life” was created – to see how well a film’s artistic bona fides stand up years after its initial release.


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The Facts

Released on November 18, 1992, “Malcolm X” was always seen to some extent as a prestige picture by Warner Brothers, so even though it didn’t hugely outgross its budget (it cost $33 million and made $48), it was a modest financial success. Despite the controversy over its conception – including Lee’s condemnation of the film’s first choice of director, Norman Jewison, and the generally mixed feeling many moviegoers had over supposedly glorifying such a divisive historical figure – the film went on to receive significant praise from the critical community, garnering a 91 percent fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes.

At the Academy Awards, star Denzel Washington received a nomination for Best Actor but lost to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman. The film was also nominated for Best Costume Design. Washington won the Silver Bear Best Actor award at the Berlin Film Festival. The Chicago Film Critics Society gave the film Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director awards, and nominated Al Freeman Jr. for Best Supporting Actor.


What Still Works

First, on a technical level, the film is beautifully constructed – there’s no fat on its three-plus hour running time, and it truly feels like it captures the most important moments in X’s life. (And more importantly, the transformation the former Malcolm Little makes into El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz is natural and unforced, but pointed.) Lee’s script captures the mindset of the former hoodlum as he transforms into the figurehead of the Nation of Islam, and then strikes out on his own as a Muslim who refuses to be bound by blind faith but must rely on logic and common sense just as much. And Ernest Dickerson’s cinematography captures some of the most glorious images ever put on screen; the director of photography has an approach that’s not unlike, say, Robert Richardson’s, where the fills the screen with color and light, and isn’t afraid to create a stylized world while somehow managing to make it still believable.

Washington’s performance as Malcolm X is one of the great in cinema history, and it’s a genuine tragedy that Al Pacino won an Oscar over him for his mugging, grandiose performance in Scent of a Woman over this complex, nuanced and utterly affecting turn. The actor’s febrile energy sizzles during the early scenes in which Malcolm fearlessly throws himself into a life of wasteful self-indulgence, and later, criminal misdeeds, and later his palpable intelligence balances out that ferocity that feels as much like a maturation of Washington himself as the character. As Elijah Muhammed, Al Freeman Jr. inspires an immediate kind of awe, and a reverence that both Washington and the audience respond to, creating a character whom we can understand why Malcolm committed himself so fully – and later, felt so powerfully disillusioned because of.

Thematically, the film should resonate with any person of any color, as its fundamental story is an American archetype – the transformation of a person with nothing into a person of great character and accomplishment. That Lee is able to successfully communicate that without X’s rhetoric overwhelming it is a testament to his virtuosity as a filmmaker. At the same time, there’s a much more fascinating and resonant idea percolating beneath the surface of the story, and that’s of a person who discovers faith and then finds that faith shaken. There’s something beautiful and tragic and truly moving about Malcolm’s commitment to the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammed, because he inevitably severs ties and exacerbates the rift between himself and them once they excommunicate him.

But there’s also something powerful and uplifting about the rediscovery of Malcolm’s intellectual awareness, his inability to simply accept on blind belief the truth and integrity of what he (and especially Muhammed) is doing. His ultimate rediscovery of his own self through his submission to the Islamic faith is a brilliant parable for any person who believes in a higher power.


What Doesn’t Work

Honestly, nothing. I’ve seen the film many, many times since its original release, and going back, there’s nothing in it that should be removed or redone or that’s problematic in any significant or even noticeable way.


The Verdict

There are many fans of Spike Lee (and detractors as well) who believe that “Do The Right Thing” is his best film, his masterpiece, and they’re right in that it contains the most rage, the most focused frustration turned into character and story. But “Malcolm X” shows the filmmaker not just at a point of advanced refinement, remarkable calm even in the face of such provocative subject matter, but at a place where he was most and best able to create stories that were very unique and yet very accessible to audiences. It certainly helped that at that time, directors like Oliver Stone were pushing buttons and mounting rhetorical cinematic arguments about a wide variety of different subjects. But Lee at that time was an equal filmmaker to Stone or almost any of his contemporaries, and “Malcolm X” is a masterpiece that deserves far more recognition than it ever received.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

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Colin the Chicken

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Dream Of The ’90s

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No You Go

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A-O River!

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One More Episode

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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