Tag Archives: Denzel Washington

American Gangster (2007)

Early in the seminal Vietnam War film The Boys In Company C an ex pimp and drug dealer from Chicago named Tyrone Washington is on a punishment detail at Marine Corps basic training in San Diego. Instead of breaking for the day, he and his four companions have to unload a supply truck. After they drop a wooden crate, and it breaks open, revealing what Washington’s friend Billy Ray Pike thinks are sleeping bags, a light bulb goes off over his head. They’re not sleeping bags at all, but body bags. There are so many bodies being shipped back to the United States from Vietnam, and the United States military has such a ritualized cult of honor about the remains of American soldiers, body bags headed back to Dover Air Force base would make the perfect cover for a heroin smuggling operation. Who would dare look inside? After Washington, who’s a man of honor in spite of his criminal past, observes Pike almost die of a drug overdose, he decides he can’t go through with it. But not every American soldier in Vietnam was a man of honor.

Tyrone Washington’s real life counterpart was a United States army master sergeant named Leslie Atkinson. “Ike” Atkinson,  who served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1975, was part owner in a nightclub called Jack’s American Star Bar, an establishment in Bangkok he had become involved with in the mid-1960s. Why he decided to move to Thailand even even before he was sent to Vietnam by the United States Army is anybody’s guess. His business parter, a man named Luchai Rubiwat,  had extensive connections to the opium trade in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle, and that opium, Atkinson concluded, would be a gold mine to anybody who could smuggle it into the United States and distribute it. He had the right connections in Southeast Asia. Now, all he needed was the right connections back home.

Back in the United States, the former driver and bodyguard of Harlem crime lord Bumpy Johnson, a North Carolina native named Frank Lucas, had a flash of inspiration, saw that light bulb go off over his own head the same way that Tyrone Washington did the first time he saw a crate full of body bags. Having met Atkinson in Thailand, Lucas realized that if he if he could import 100% pure heroin directly from the source in The Golden Triangle, he could not only bypass the corrupt New York City Police Department — who were confiscating heroin, re cutting it, and putting it back on the streets — he could break free of the Italian mafia, who controlled Harlem through their black surrogates. It worked. Even though Atkinson always denied using body bags — claiming it was a dramatic embellishment by Lucas — the pair of “American Gangsters” did use United States military transports returning from Vietnam. Both became wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. When he was arrested in 1975, Lucas had $584,683 in cash in his house in Teaneck, New Jersey, and over 200 million dollars deposited in Cayman Island bank accounts.

What became known as the “cadaver connection” is such a great story that it’s not surprising it was the center piece of the earliest important film about the American occupation of Vietnam.  What’s positively baffling is how it just sat there for 30 years. Not only did Stanley Kubrick cut it out of Full Metal Jacket,  his stylized knockoff of The Boys in Company C, Hollywood disappeared it altogether. Except for an oblique allusion in Miami Vice, the “cadaver connection” never made it into the American cinema. It’s not in Apocalypse Now. It’s not in The Deer Hunter. It’s not in Platoon, Hamburger Hill, We Were Soldiers, or Casualties of War. And it’s certainly nowhere to be seen in Forrest Gump. The whole story was erased from the American historical imagination as surely as Trotsky’s photo had been cut out of official Soviet propaganda. Even the undeniable proof offered up by Gary Webb that 20 years later the CIA smuggled cocaine into South Central Los Angeles couldn’t bring it back. I’m not usually one for conspiracy theories, but this just makes my tinfoil hat start to glow bright red. Portraying American soldiers as rapists, murderers and war criminals the way Brian De Palma did in Casualties of War was one thing. You could write them off as “a few bad apples.” But the idea that at the very beginning of the “war on drugs” United States military transports were being used to ship hundreds of millions of dollars of heroin from The Golden Triangle to the United States is another issue altogether.  That would imply conscious organization from the top down.

Perhaps the incestuous relationship of the United States military with Hollywood could explain why the “cadaver connection” made it into only one American film about Vietnam, The Boys in Company C, a low budget B movie funded out of Hong Kong?

In 2007, the “cadaver connection” was finally put on screen in a mainstream Hollywood film, very mainstream. Not only did it star Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, it was directed by Ridley Scott, of Blade Runner, Alien, Black Hawk Down, and Thelma and Louise fame. I suppose, perhaps, that with the drug war winding down, and with the War in Vietnam a distant, hazy memory, American cinema could explore “the cadaver connection” in more detail. The only problem is that American Gangster is just not a very engaging movie. It’s not a bad movie, but it is a movie badly in need of an editor. While politically nuanced, thoughtful, and even progressive, American Gangster is ponderous and slow moving. It would be hard to point out where exactly it goes wrong. It doesn’t. Except for one ghastly misstep where the neighborhood under the Manhattan Bridge is identified as “Newark New Jersey” — there are 30 million people in the NYC metropolitan area and you wouldn’t get that howler past even one of them — it’s technically, dramatically, and aesthetically quite sound. American Gangster even “makes you think.” It doesn’t shy away from the “cadaver connection.” It shows New York City police officers as being little different from criminals. Go see Serpico if you want more. Ridley Scott has a feel for the rhythm of cinema. When the film finally gets moving , it’s genuinely tense and exciting.

The problem is the way Ridley Scott locks the fascinating story of “the cadaver connection” into a tediously mainstream Hollywood narrative: Crime as the American Dream, the gangster as Horatio Alger. If that weren’t enough, he introduces a parallel narrative, one even more cliched: the maverick cop who bucks the system. They’re both perfectly legitimate subjects for a film. But unless you’re a genius willing to take the story so far over the top that it becomes surreal — the way Brian De Palma did it in Scarface — or be completely original about it— and for the life of me I can’t think of a completely original film about a “maverick cop” — it’s not going to hold anybody’s interest. People will go see it.  But they won’t remember it. American Gangster was a financial and critical success. But it never entered into the American collective consciousness the way Scarface or The Godfather have.

Denzel Washington — who’s one of the great actors of his generation and couldn’t turn in a bad performance if he tried — plays Frank Lucas. American Gangster opens with Lucas, and his mentor Bumpy Johnson, played by Clarence Williams III, burning a man alive. Theoretically, this should mark off Lucas as a villain, like Robert Deniro in The Untouchables when he cracks open one of his lackey’s skulls with a baseball bat. But Lucas and Bumpy Johnson aren’t villains. They’re benevolent capitalists. Bumpy is a Harlem legend, as much local politician as gangster. If he orders his right-hand man to burn a man alive, he also gives out food parcels to the needy on 125th Street. The film cuts to Bumpy and Lucas in a big discount appliance store. For Bumpy, the idea of a department store buying wholesale right from the manufacturer is a violation of the social contract. It destroys the small businessman. But for Lucas,it’s a flash of inspiration. After Bumpy dies of a heart attack, and Lucas takes over his rackets, Lucas, like the historical Frank Lucas, and like the appliance store, decides to buy wholesale right from the manufacturer. He flies to Thailand, takes a boat up river, and meets with a Thai warlord who agrees to be his supplier. Soon, Harlem, then the United States as a whole, is flooded with Blue Magic, a superior product that, like Walter White’s Blue Meth in Breaking Bad, upsets the market and makes Lucas rich. Lucas, as if he were a sports star or a rock star, marries a beauty queen, brings his family up to Harlem from North Carolina, and starts living the good life. Like Breaking Bad’s Gus Fring, however, he’s smart enough to stay low key. He goes to church with his mother every Sunday. He dresses conservatively. Like his mentor Bumpy Johnson, he establishes himself as a local benefactor. He gives out out food parcels to the needy, and becomes a solid member of his community.

Bumpy Johnson’s tried and true methods work so well for Frank Lucas that the NYPD, who are either racists — they can’t believe a black man would have the brains to cut in on the Italians — or corrupt — they’ll look the other way for the right payoff — let him “hide in plain sight” for years. But Newark New Jersey is not New York City, and a “maverick” Jersey cop named Richie Roberts — maverick because he’s honest and doesn’t take bribes — has been promoted to head the federal government’s narcotic bureau in north Jersey. Roberts, Russell Crowe, slowly and patiently traces the supply of Blue Magic back to Lucas. Roberts is a sympathetic character and Crowe is perfectly believable as an underdog from Jersey, but, sadly, it’s just propaganda. Here we are, at the very inception of the “war on drugs,” in a film with a real budget, a cast of A-list actors, and a story waiting to be told, and Ridley Scott directs yet another film about “one good cop.” If Scott criticizes The American Dream by portraying it as a crime story, he injects the American Dream with new life by portraying it as the story of a sympathetic police officer. There’s a silly, made up subplot about Roberts in a custody battle for his son — the real life Roberts never had any kids — and Roberts is something of a womanizer, but we don’t care. Richie Roberts is a super hero who not only brings down the sympathetic in spite of his being a drug lord Frank Lucas. He exposes a corrupt NYPD police detective, an oily “dress for success” bully played to perfection by Josh Brolin. Schlub from Jersey gets even with an Armani clad NYC slickster? Hell, even I wanted to be a cop after watching this film.

It’s just too bad that Ridley Scott didn’t have the imagination to center American Gangster, not on the characters of Lucas and Roberts, but on the story of the cadaver connection. Indeed, while American Gangster drags over the course of its almost three hours, it comes alive in the last half hour. Robert’s has traced the source of the Blue Magic back to a military transport. He knows the drugs are hidden in one of the coffins. He has a warrant to search the whole plane, but the military won’t let him do it. Roberts is clever enough to get around the military’s fastidiousness about opening up the coffins of the remains of American service personal, but you can’t help but sigh at the great story that Ridley Scott missed. According to the real Richie Roberts and Judge Sterling Johnson, who presided over Lucas’ trial, the film was 99% Hollywood, 1% reality. Ridley Scott took the wrong liberties with history. He fictionalized the wrong parts of Lucas’ story.

If — according to the historical Richie Roberts — the real Frank Lucas was an illiterate thug, not the clever, educated businessman portrayed by Denzel Washington, then who really masterminded the “cadaver connection?” Was Lucas, like the Freeway Ricky Ross of Iran Contra fame, just a conduit for a conspiracy by the United States government to smuggle heroin into the United States? The war in Vietnam was winding down. The military was falling apart. But the “war on drugs” and the prison industrial complex were gearing up, and would, under Ronald Reagan, become a key part of the United States surveillance/security state. The war on drugs would create jobs, for lawyers, cops, federal agents, even filmmakers. Could it have been put into place by people higher up on the food chain than Frank Lucas, conspirators who wanted power, not just money? Who knows. But it would have made a great story. Sadly, Ridley Scott chose not to tell it.

Glory (1989)

“If you are for me and my problems,” Malcolm X said in 1965, “then you have to be willing to do as old John Brown did.”

Robert Gould Shaw, who was only 25 when he died in 1863, was the son of wealthy abolitionists Francis George and Sarah Blake. He attended Harvard University, traveled widely in Europe, and had the benefit of a sizeable fortune that had been amassed by his grandfather and namesake, who died in 1854. He was descended from a veteran of the American Revolution, and would have been a member by primogeniture of the Society of the Cincinnati had he survived his father. In other words, Shaw was a solid member of the New England, Brahmin elite. More importantly, he was also a veteran of the Battle of Antietam, which opens Edward Zwick’s highly regarded, but still probably underrated 1989 film, Glory.

The battle of Antietam, known in the south as the Battle of Sharpsburg, is still the single bloodiest day in American history. Not the invasion of Normandy, not 9/11, not even the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg can quite compare with the carnage that took place in western Maryland on September 17th, 1862. Had Robert Gould Shaw, who sustained some minor wounds, retired that day, moved to the south of France, and spent the rest of his life sitting on the beach, he would have still died knowing he had done his duty for his country, and for humanity.

Yet history was not finished with Robert Gould Shaw, and Robert Gould Shaw was not finished with history. The Battle of Antietam was a Union victory, but only barely. Ulysses Grant was not yet the commander of the Army of the Potomac. George B. McClellan, who could have destroyed Robert E. Lee once and for all had he deployed the ample reserve from his gigantic army, repulsed the Confederates, then decided to sit tight. Lee slipped across the Potomac River back into Virginia, and would live to bedevil Abraham Lincoln for three more years, his great victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville still ahead of him. But the Battle of Antietam was enough of a Union victory to make the governments of France and Great Britain balk at the idea of recognizing the Confederate government in Richmond, and pressuring the Republicans in Washington to sue for peace. Lincoln saw his opportunity. Going forward, the war would be not only about preserving the Union, but about ending slavery. On September 22, 1862, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in the states that had seceded from the United States, winning popular opinion in Europe for good.

The Union Army was not only the first mass, industrialized state army. It was a genuinely multi-ethnic army. A huge wave of German and Irish immigration had transformed the character of the United States, and over 200,000 Irish, and 216,000 German immigrants wound up serving in its ranks. There was, in fact, an entire corps of the Army of the Potomac made up of German speaking immigrants who served largely under German speaking officers. The question of whether or not the Union Army would become a genuinely multi-racial army was still up in the air in the fall of 1862. It would. By the end of the war, 210,000 black soldiers would serve in over 160 “Colored Regiments.” And yet it wouldn’t. Black troops, unlike native born white troops, or German or Irish immigrant troops, were not allowed to serve under their own officers.

The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry that Robert Gould Shaw would die leading in the assault on Fort Wagner in the summer of 1863 was one of the first, and best of the “Colored Regiments.” It is well known to history, having been the subject of an angry sonnet by the African American writer Paul Lawrence Dunbar, a somewhat longer poem by Robert Lowell, and the great monument at on Boston Common. Glory, perhaps the only good film about the United States Civil War ever to have come out of Hollywood, tells the story of Shaw, and a largely fictionalized group of black soldiers. Whether or not it’s a perfect film is largely beside the point. It’s been criticized, for example, by Roger Ebert for spending too much time on Shaw, and not enough time honoring men like William Carney, the man who “saved the flag” at the Battle of Fort Wagner, the first African American to win the Congressional Medal of Honor, and the real life model for Morgan Freeman’s Sergeant John Rawlins. Zwick came under fire for choosing Matthew Broderick — Ferris Bueller after all — as Robert Gould Shaw. But none of that really matters. Glory towers above every other film ever made about the central event of American history. Most films about the United States Civil War are either racist and reactionary like Gone With The Wind or Birth Of A Nation, or dull and mediocre like Gettysburg, the Horse Soldiers, and Cold Mountain. Glory captures the idealism of 19th Century American abolitionism and radical Republicanism in all of its, well, glory.

As such, Glory, at times, almost feels like something unearthed from a culture long dead and gone. Did men like Robert Gould Shaw ever exist? Did the American ruling class ever include people who were motivated, not by greed, or a lust of power, but by patriotism and a love of freedom and democracy? That’s the thing about how we perceive the United States Civil War. Out of all the wars in our history — World War II gets an asterisk because it was a Russian, not an American victory over fascism — the Civil War was not only the bloodiest, it was the only one that really was about “freedom.” How ironic therefore that it’s also the only American war that we talk about as a catastrophe or “avoidable” or a “tragic conflict of brother against brother.” What’s more, in the 1970s and 1980s, most American liberals and progressives were solidly in the “war is meaningless hell” camp. Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Casualties of War, Apocalypse Now, the issue of the day for American filmmakers was Vietnam, a war about empire, not freedom. How odd Glory must have seemed in 1989, a film that was both solidly liberal, and yet pro-war, and a good film about the United States Civil War has to be pro-war. Gettysburg and Antietam, for all their horrifying violence, were great moments for the human race, example of where men were willing to stand in line, and hold their ground in the face of almost certain death or dismemberment for the ideas of freedom and democracy. This was real. It happened. All the bad Hollywood films in the world can’t change the fact that “we” Americans fought the most violent civil war in history to end slavery. In addition to its other virtues, Glory solidly addresses the question of who “we” are. None of those 210,000 African American Union Army soldiers, whether they were put to work doing manual labor or involved in the actual fighting, saw themselves as being in a “tragic war of brother against brother.” They saw themselves as an oppressed nation fighting against their enslavers.

“We” of course also includes white men who hated slavery. When Captain Robert Gould Shaw returns to his parents’ mansion from Antietam, he attends a party given by his abolitionist parents. There he meets Frederick Douglass, Raymond St. Jacques in the last film of his career, and the radical Republican governor of Massachusetts, John Albion Andrew. He also meets his childhood friend Thomas Searles, a college educated, free black men played by a wonderful young Andre Braugher. Shaw is offered the command of the 54th Massachusetts, and accepts, not a decision he would have taken lightly. Jefferson Davis would soon issue a proclamation stating that any captured black soldier, or white officer captured leading black soldiers would be shot on sight. The horrific Confederate prisoner of war camp at Andersonville was a development very late in the war. Until 1864, it was very common for soldiers of both sides to surrender, and to be “paroled” shortly afterwards on their word that they would not return to the ranks. By commanding black troops Shaw would be denied that option. It would be victory or death.

The first half of Glory is staged as a conventional “basic training” narrative where “boys” are made into men, and yet it’s not. The problem of race makes Shaw’s encampment at Camp Meigs in Readville Massachusetts profoundly different, for example, from Full Metal Jacket’s Parris Island. Why do you think I put “boys” into quotes? Morgan Freeman’s John Rawlins, Braugher’s Thomas Searles, Denzel Washington’s Silas Trip, and Jihmi Kennedy’s Jupiter Sharts do, on some superficial level, resemble soldiers in a World War II film. Searles is timid, educated, a bookworm. Trip is an ex-slave, an angry young man and a vaguely anachronistic, post 1960s Black Nationalist who despises Searles over his privileged upbringing. Sharts is a good-natured country boy who’s handy with a rifle. Rawlins is an older man of great personal authority, a natural leader, and, because he worked as a gravedigger after the Battle of Antietam and knows the sacrifices white soldiers have made to end slavery, a patriot who only wants his chance to die for his country.

The basic training sequence in Glory has a political and historical complexity like few other war films. There’s no one-sided, authoritarian relationship between Shaw, his second in command Cabot Forbes, or his drill instructor Sergeant Mulcahy and his black troops. Shaw, as a privileged white man, must learn to see things from the point of view of ex-slaves, the men the war is, after all, at least in his eyes, being fought over. Denzel Washington’s Silas Trip, on the other hand, mistrusts Shaw. “He ain’t been to no West Point,” he says. What Trip doesn’t quite understand is that he’s been to Antietam, a thousand times rougher than some boys school up on the Hudson River. Camp Meigs, in effect, becomes a model republic. Trip goes AWOL. Shaw, in what might be Glory’s most famous scene, has him flogged, immediately regretting his decision when he sees the scars Trip still has from his years in bondage. Rawlins, who would later become the regiment’s top sergeant, and who plays the part of the commanding father figure to Trip’s difficult son, makes up a story about Trip only having gone AWOL to look for shoes. The corrupt, political officers who run the quartermaster corps in Massachusetts are holding out. Shaw, in turn, becomes a better commanding officer when, under Rawlins’ prodding, he goes to the supply depot and demands that the corrupt officer in charge release the uniforms (and shoes) that have been requisitioned for his men. There’s a brief scene where Shaw becomes, in effect, a labor leader, vowing not to accept pay if his black troops are paid under the prevailing scale for white troops, outflanking the more radical Trip, who’s willing to take whatever pay he can get. Thomas Searles learns that he needs to toughen himself up, that years of reading books hasn’t prepared him to go to war. Sergeant Mulcahy, who we at first think is an Irish immigrant racist, reveals himself instead to be a man who understands perfectly well where Searles is going, to a hell where he’ll need all the training he can get if he’s going to survive.

The key to understanding Glory is that none of the black soldiers under Shaw’s command wants only to survive. Rather, as John Rawlins tells Trip, they want their chance to die for their country like men. That is what makes Glory such an outlier among American war films, a pro-war, openly patriotic, and yet left-wing film made after Vietnam. Some of the scenes in the South Carolina “Sea Islands” where the Stars and Stripes is unfurled to the cheers of freed slaves are among the most patriotic images I’ve ever seen in a mainstream film. The scene where a certain Colonel Montgomery orders Shaw to participate in the abuse of white, southern civilians is a quick, and harrowing lesson in the difference between simple class revenge and fighting for a just society. Rawlins, Trip, Sharts, all of them are ex-slaves. None of them wanted this. Not even the angry Trip wants to be a war criminal.

Finally, the men of the 54th get their chance to fight, a minor skirmish, and then to die, the assault on the almost impregnable Fort Wagner. William Carney, the real John Rawlins, would survive the assault and go onto a long career working for the United States Postal Service, finally getting his Congressional Medal of Honor 37 years after the Battle of Fort Wagner. “Boys,” the ex slave remarked. “I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!” Carney would plant the Stars and Stripes on the parapet at Fort Wagner, and bring it back behind Union lines, even though he was severely wounded. Shaw offers the position of standard-bearer to Silas Trip, who refuses the honor because, as he makes clear, he’s fighting for his race, not his country. Yet, in the end, after Shaw is killed, Trip picks up the colors, and dies alongside the white officer he had so mistrusted. Searles is bayoneted, dying at a young age, but clearly a “man” and not a ‘boy.” What happens to Rawlins is not so clear. Perhaps he, like William Carney, survives to go onto a long career as a postman and a motivational speaker, finally getting the recognition he so richly deserves during the (Teddy) Roosevelt administration. Glory closes with the Confederate flag flying over Fort Wagner, but it’s a victory in defeat. Abraham Lincoln, a racist until late in the Civil War, would gain new respect for black soldiers after he learned about the 54th Massachusetts. Their sacrifice would help inspire him, not only to use the manpower so desperately needed by the Union, but, also, to push for the 13th Amendment and the end of slavery.

“He is out of bounds,” the poet Robert Lowell would write in his great poem For the Union Dead about Shaw, but which could also apply to Trip or Thomas Searles. “He rejoices in man’s lovely, peculiar power to choose life and die.”

Malcolm X (1992)

Spike Lee’s Malcolm X holds up surprisingly well after 22 years. Much of the credit should go to Denzel Washington, who puts on one of the great performances in the history of cinema. But, if this very long — over three hours — film has scarcely a boring moment, it has a lot to do with Spike Lee’s direction and Arnold Perl’s screenplay, both of which compliment each other perfectly.

Let’s take one representative moment. Most of us are familiar with the photo of Malcolm X standing near a window with an M1 carbine. Perhaps we’ve seen a poster on the wall of a college dormitory with the famous caption reading “by any means necessary.” Spike Lee puts the image in a sophisticated fictional context — the actual circumstances of the photo aren’t clear — that undermines the idea that it’s a “call to arms.” We are late in the film. Malcolm X, who has just returned from his pilgrimage to Mecca, is giving a press conference with a group of clueless — Is there any other type? — white reporters. Since he’s worshipped with Muslims of all races, he’s no longer a rigid black nationalist. He’s also broken with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, but he’s unwilling to change his position on armed self-defense. “When the white man gives up his guns,” he says to one particularly belligerent reporter, “we’ll give up ours.” But just as we’re about to cheer, a black man at the back of the crowd yells “get your hand out of my pocket,” exactly what one of Malcolm’s assassins yelled at the Audubon Ballroom, and, thus, clearly foreshadowing his murder. Later, at home, we see the famous image. Denzel Washington, as Malcolm X, is standing in front of the window with an M1 Carbine. The image is transformed. Malcolm is not defending his family against the Klan, or against the police, but against his fellow black Muslims. It’s not an image romanticizing violence, but calling our attention to its cost.

Lee’s film is not only an evocation of Malcolm X from the grave. It’s an elegy for the leader he might have been. Malcolm, only 39 years old when he was murdered, was not only at the height of his oratorical powers, but in the middle of a spiritual and intellectual transformation only the greatest leaders go through. If Lincoln died when he was on his way to seeing black Americans as his equals, then Malcolm X died before he become the leader of the black nation within the American nation, a “black messiah,” to use J. Edgar Hoover’s surprisingly accurate term.

Denzel Washington, who was 38 in 1992, accomplishes the astonishing feat of capturing Malcolm X at each stage of his development. Somehow Washington’s 19-year-old Malcolm X looks 19. That’s no mean accomplishment. Even the great Daniel Day Lewis, who, in Jim Sheridan’s film In the Name of the Father played the unjustly accused Irish political prisoner Gerry Conlon over a similar span of time, barely even tries to get the ages right. Lewis’s 19 year old Gerry Conlon looks 35. Yet when Malcolm X opens, the 38-year-old Washington manages to look like a young man barely out of his teens.

We are in Boston during the Second World War. It’s actually Ridgewood in Queens, but, whether it’s historically accurate or not, Spike Lee has set the stage with so much energy and commitment it doesn’t really matter. We think we’re in Boston during the Second World War. Malcolm, and his friend “Shorty,” played by Lee himself, are decked out in their “zoot suits.” Malcolm is about to get what’s known as a “conk,” a black man treating his hair with lye in order to straighten it, to make him look more like a white man. It’s not self-mutilation on the level of Michael Jackson, but it’s remarkably painful nonetheless. Later we see Malcolm blow off a black woman to get involved with a white woman named Sofia. He hooks up with a West Indian gangster named Archie, starts running numbers, and, soon, is living the life of a petty criminal.

Black men committing crimes, Lee implies, comes from their wanting to be white, from self-hatred, but he doesn’t quite leave it at that moralistic level. Washington’s Malcolm X is more than just a self-hating black man. He’s a gifted young man with a high IQ. He had the ability to be anything he wanted, but he was cut adrift by a society that did not allow blacks to rise to their potential. So much for a “meritocracy.” Indeed, we had seen him earlier mention to a clueless, malevolent white teacher he wanted to be a lawyer, only to be told he should be a carpenter instead, “like Jesus.” Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm, and Lee’s photography, shows him not only as a young man who hates himself, but as a young man looking for his identity. He’s charming one moment, angry and violent the next. The way Lee shoots him and Shorty as they walk along in their “zoot suits,” with a hand held camera from below, conveys what Malcolm is thinking. “This is fun for the moment, but it’s not me. I’m trying on this identity like I’m trying on this walk and this zoot suit. But when I find out who I really am, I’ll get rid of them.”

Malcolm finds himself in prison. After being sentenced to an 8-10 year sentence for burglary, and after being tortured into barking out a prison number instead of his “real” name,” he catches the attention of “Brother Baines,” a prison recruiter for Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Brother Baines, who will later betray him, helps him get over his hatred of himself for being black. But we also get the sense that part of the appeal of the Nation of Islam for Malcolm is that it’s also an opportunity to, finally, make use of his formidable intellect. After he’s paroled Malcolm quickly rises in the hierarchy of the Nation of Islam becoming not only Elijah Muhammad’s right hand man, but his clear superior.

One of the things that the film leaves unmentioned is how Malcolm X recruited Muhammad Ali, a coup on the level of someone in the Occupy movement recruiting Jennifer Lawrence into a drum circle at Zuccotti Park. Soon, Brother Baines is leading the anti-Malcolm faction in the Nation of Islam. So why didn’t Spike Lee include Malcolm’s recruitment of Muhammad Ali? It’s a significant part of the autobiography. Perhaps he was afraid of complications that would arise from the fact that Ali, who later regretted his mistake and converted to orthodox Sunni Islam, did not support Malcolm after his break with Elijah Muhammad. Perhaps he was afraid a historical character as important as Ali would have thrown his story out of proportion. In any event, we do get some hints over the way Brother Baines scolds Malcolm in prison for being happy about Jackie Robinson making it into the major leagues. While it’s true that Malcolm’s conversion was still in process, we also feel Malcolm’s affinity for another gifted black American and for individual achievement that a less brilliant activist like Baines might have resented.

As the inevitable tragedy plays out, as we approach the assassination, the tone of the film turns darker. We all know what’s going to happen. Malcolm X will be assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom, but the level of dread Spike Lee is able to imbue the final hour of Malcolm X with is quite remarkable. Spike Lee is known as something of an eccentric character, a manic little man who waives a towel on the floor of Knicks home games, but he’s also thought deeply about American violence, and how it consumes the most gifted Americans. Lincoln, both Kennedys, Martin Luther King, the body count of potentially transformative leaders is staggeringly large. Lee never addresses possible government involvement in Malcolm’s assassination, but he’s interested in something far more important than another conspiracy theory. Malcolm X, a potential great man, was cut down by black mediocrities as surely as his father, a political activist and follower of Marcus Garvey, was murdered by the Klan.

There’s nothing liberating about violence, Lee is telling us. Washington’s Malcolm X is not a ruthless leader of an armed rebellion. Instead, he’s most powerful when he’s speaking in front of a crowd, not holding a gun. The highpoint of his success comes not instigating violence but with preventing it. After a black man is beaten by the police and taken, in secret, into a police station to be left to die, Malcolm leads a march on the precinct. There are no guns involved, just discipline and organization, for more important, even in the event of an armed rebellion, than a stockpile of weapons. As he leads a column of well dressed men against the police, the rest of the neighborhood follows along. The threat of a mass uprising forces the police to back down and take the beaten man to a hospital. Not a shot is fired. Not a punch is thrown. Not a harsh word is spoken. It’s what might have been, Lee is telling us, the promise of a new African nation inside the United States that was cut down by the hail of bullet inside the Audubon Ballroom.

Even as a white American, the enemy in the eyes of the Nation of Islam, I can’t help but realize that a well-organized black America might have been better for all Americans than a downtrodden mass at the mercy of the corporatocracy. Indeed, that might be the film’s biggest accomplishment. As opposed to the clueless white reporters, who persistently label Malcolm an “anti-white-extremist,” we can see that his political agenda, in the end, would not have been limited to his personal history. While it’s certainly understandable that any black man whose father had been murdered by the Klan and who had his opportunities limited by a racist white establishment would be hostile towards, even hate white people, it’s also clear that Malcom X had the intellect and the self-discipline necessary to work through his personal baggage to a larger, more inclusive vision. Lee somehow manages to use the trip to Mecca to convey a sense, not only of coming to orthodox Islam, but also transcending a narrow American view of the world. Perhaps Malcolm X, like James Baldwin in Paris, would have eventually realized that the United States is only one part of a very large world, economically and militarily powerful, but culturally limited. We’ll never know.