CINEMA / The wild-cat turns tiger

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The Independent Culture
YOU LEAVE Malcolm X on a high the film hasn't quite earned. Two great voices - a howl and a growl - lift you from your seat. Over the closing credits Aretha Franklin belts out 'Someday We'll All Be Free'. Before that, Ossie Davis, Spike Lee's gravelly eminence grise, has thundered through the lyrical eulogy he delivered at Malcolm's funeral, 28 years ago this week: 'A black shining prince, who didn't hesitate to die because he loved us so.' The pain, rage and pride that ring out in these voices are muffled in the film itself, buried under its reverence. Malcolm X is more of a monument than a movie. At times it feels like The Greatest Black Story Ever Told.

It starts brightly enough - you almost need to shield your eyes. We're in war-time Boston, and who should we bump into but Spike Lee, wearing a tartan zoot suit that would shame a bookie. He's taking his mate Malcolm Little (Denzel Washington) for a hair-do. These are the early years of Malcolm, when he seemed absorbed in every colour but black. His suits - maroon, violet, tangerine - suggest he's auditioning for the test card.

He prefers easy white girls to hard-to-bed blacks. His hair, within moments, is set in a white straightening lotion, which is effective, but scaldingly painful. Historians have suggested that Malcolm was by now already political, flouting austerity and the armed forces with a defiant game of chicken. It looks more like playing peacock.

This is the first of three adult Malcolms - the playboy, the prisoner and the preacher. The high life in Boston (interrupted by a spell running numbers in Harlem) is ended by a 10-year prison sentence. 'I was an animal,' Malcolm recalls of his early years, and, caged up, he lashes out aimlessly. An older prisoner, Baines (Albert Hall), tutors him in Islam, inspiring him to learn and discipline himself. He plunders the dictionary, as a key to the white man's mind and a weapon against his lies. After shredding the prison chaplain in a dispute over Jesus's colour, the new Malcolm X is ready to take on the world - a wild-cat turned tiger.

Denzel Washington captures this transformation wonderfully. In the early scenes he's preening but diffident, a seductive liability to his friends. After prison he seems altered physically as well as morally: the slouch has become a ramrod, the smile loses its lopsidedness in favour of a straight-jawed, toothy white gleam - as if he'd laid aside kinkiness. When he speaks he has the force and flow of the autodidact. Hecklers are tossed aside by the rush of his rhetoric, its rolling cadences and resounding repetitions. It's like watching a world champion boxer jabbing an opponent on the ropes.

This a very different black icon from Steve Biko, played by Washington in Cry Freedom. Washington's Biko, with his soft, high voice, had an impregnable serenity. He was a fatalist, answering back his persecutors with pungent wit, but leading by example rather than demagoguery. Malcolm is an iron commander, unbending even in personal moments. At times he becomes a parody of himself. When a Muslim is beaten up by police, Malcolm leads a vigil outside the police station. After Malcolm's demands have been met the camera closes on his gloved fist. A twist of the forefinger and the crowd disperses. 'That's too much power for one man to have,' gasps a cop, in a line that's in the history books but sounds phoney.

The scales are tipped too heavily towards Malcolm. It's a one-man show, and there's no sense of the world outside and how it was affected: the film feels strangely intimate despite its cast of thousands. No one's allowed to share the stage with Malcolm, let alone shine. The Reverend Elijah Mohammed (Al Freeman, Jr), the leader of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm's mentor and idol, who turned out to have feet of clay, is set up from the start. He's a caricature, hanging out in a Godfather-like lair of slatted windows and red leather chairs, towered over by Malcolm. It's hard to believe anyone being taken in by this pocket Napoleon of primness.

Romanticism tends to nudge aside revolution in Spike Lee's work. He's a great prettifier, photographing everything with a golden glow, as if reacting to Seventies Blaxploitation cinema with a new, Marcus Garvey sort of creed: Black Cinema is Beautiful. Even the flash-back scenes of Malcolm's childhood home being torched by the Ku-Klux-Klan have a ravishing sheen. When Malcolm's mother is about to be institutionalised, the camera does a sentimental tour of her children's tiny faces. Suffering is served up too neatly to be felt. The symbolism is heavy-handed too: at Malcolm's conversion a pool of light shines through the prison bars. The film makes its points as plainly as a school book.

The soundtrack is subtler. Malcolm's proposal to Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett) - a rare rounded minor character, managing to be her own woman as well as his consort - is underscored by Ella Fitzgerald and the romantic ballad 'Azure'. When Malcolm's at his lowest, reeling from betrayal, Ray Charles sings 'That Lucky Old Sun Just Rolls around Heaven' - ironic but hopeful.

The film is biased rather than dishonest. All the glosses are favourable. There's no hint, for instance, that the fire at Malcolm's house shortly before his assassination could be other than arson; suggestions that it was started by Malcolm himself are presented as malicious propaganda, even though there's evidence to support them. Such economies with the truth can be seen as redress for cinema's traditional travesty of black experience. It would take the half-truths of 10 Malcolm Xs to rub out the racialist lies of The Birth of a Nation.

But by setting Malcolm X up as a saint, the film hoodwinks itself. At the end black schoolchildren pledge to a safari-shirted Nelson Mandela: 'I am Malcolm X'; even though we've already seen Malcolm losing his way, tempering his separatism and renouncing racism.

The film is most moving when it shows Malcolm's impressionability (early on we see him playing at being James Cagney), his need for a role and a creed, his unquestioning loyalty. James Baldwin, in the screenplay Lee based the film on, describes Malcolm as 'groping'. In Malcolm X the groping Malcolm is swallowed by the Messiah, the human portrait by the hagiography. Like Gandhi, it's an epic about an ascetic. Malcolm once said, vaunting his self-discipline, that he couldn't respect a man who didn't wear a watch. After three hours and 20 minutes you may wonder if Spike Lee has his on. It's not that the film drags, but what's engrossing is the sweep of history rather than the clash of ideas.

In Toys Robin Williams turns up at his father's funeral in a dodgem car. It looks odd in the cortege but it turns out to be just the right transport to a mausoleum that's a giant Dumbo doll, with soap bubbles rising from its trunk and a laughing machine cackling inside. Williams appears later with smoke billowing from his jacket - his smoking jacket, he explains.

It's that sort of movie, those sort of jokes. Most of them miss, but when they hit they have a wacky charm. They're oddly personal too, convulsing individuals in the audience I was in, but never setting off the mass. There's not enough reality to rub against the whimsy.

As the son of a toy factory owner (Donald O'Connor), Williams stands to inherit the plant, which would appear to have been designed by Magritte. But on his death-bed, this King Leer makes over his crazy kingdom to his General brother (Michael Gambon). The General ups the production of war toys, allowing the film to satirise the Peter Pan side of the military, and wind up with a nursery Armageddon between the wartoys and the liberal staff.

Williams, with his blondstreaked hair and bow-tie, resembles a bespoke Rod Stewart, and provides the best gags with lightning improvisations - most memorably a glove-puppet Mother Teresa. But he's 10 per cent inspiration, 90 per cent exasperation. Gambon's best comic roles have been timid Ayckbourn twits. Here, he looks uneasy as the harrumphing General, camouflaging himself against the gaudy factory to look like a multi-coloured Norman Schwarzkopf. The film's so different, and flawed, it missed its audience altogether in America. It deserves a better fate here.

Consenting Adults is the sort of thriller that you're grudgingly gripped by. As the implausibilities mount, so does the tension. Kevin Kline and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio play the Parkers, an affluent Atlanta couple, as happy as it's possible to be while making your living composing jingles.

When Eddy (Kevin Spacey) and Kay (Rebecca Miller) move in next door, the Parkers give them the cold shoulder. But Eddy pulls off an insurance scam for them and Kay has a habit of undressing by windows, so they get to like them. They should have known from Eddy's grin that he's a maniac and from Kay's name and long blonde hair that she's a femme fatale, but somehow they miss it. They don't even spot from their neighbours' infernal red decor that they're entering the devil's lair.

After some incognito wifeswapping (the wives aren't told) Kline finds himself charged with Kay's murder. Mysteriously he manages to get out on bail, and investigates. It holds you just about, but Kline's performance is ludicrously inert: they might as well have cast a breeze-block. Alan J Pakula directs. His last film was Presumed Innocent; this is a twist or two inferior.

'Malcolm X' (15): MGMs Shaftesbury Avenue (836 8861), Trocadero (434 0032) and Fulham Road (373 6990), UCI Whiteleys (792 3324), Screen on the Green (226 3520), and general release. 'Toys' (PG): Odeon Leicester Square (930 3232). 'Consenting Adults' (15): Odeon West End (930 7615) and general release. All numbers 071.

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