FILM / Stations of the cross

We see a hand in huge close-up, in a black glove. Abruptly the forefinger points to one side. The soundtrack exaggerates, so that we actually hear the creak of the glove leather as the finger makes its move. Obediently, the praetorian guard of the Nation of Islam turns and files away, so that what was a formidable crowd a moment ago, demanding justice, becomes a confused mob without its paramilitary front line, and melts away more or less of its own accord.

It's a fine moment, that authoritative glove-creak, but it is also the brief high point, in Spike Lee's Malcolm X, of the hero's political effectiveness, and a small thing to provide the climax of an attempt at epic. Never before has the organisation of which he is spokesman, the Nation of Islam, made such forceful demands - that Johnson Hinton, a black man arrested and beaten by police, be examined and taken to hospital - and never again does it act without confusion or internal rivalries.

The presentation of the incident in the film is a fascinating example of the way the writer-director's doubts about his hero are both foregrounded and suppressed (Lee shares a screenplay credit with Arnold Perl, but since Perl died in 1971 we can safely discount collaboration). At first Malcolm X (Denzel Washington) hesitates to intervene, but a woman accuses the Nation of Islam of only looking after its own, doing nothing when a non-aligned black is brutalised. It is this slur that spurs Malcolm to action. But in fact both the accusation and its rebuttal in action are invented: according to Malcolm X's autobiography, Johnson Hinton was a Brother of Muslim Temple No 7.

There's no reason why an organisation shouldn't look after its own, and the scene would be no less effective cinematically if Lee had left it at that. But he has felt the need both to raise an issue with a fabricated confrontation - that Malcolm X's politics were sectarian at heart - and to banish it with a fabricated fact, that he reached out beyond his group.

In 20 years, it may be that Malcolm X and Oliver Stone's JFK will seem to be much of a muchness, both doomed attempts, long on rhetoric, short on true drama, to revive figureheads of the Sixties whose deadness is actually the essence of their power. Both films self-consciously break the three- hour barrier, as if even in an era of frazzled attention spans long was the best guarantee of large.

Spike Lee is much the better film-maker, if that still needs to be said, but he has much the harder task. Oliver Stone spent his three hours compulsively fingering the stigmata of the martyred Kennedy, while Lee must tell X's life story from scratch. It doesn't help that X's thinking progressed not by synthesis and modification but by a series of conversions and renunciations, so that no one who is attached to one particular stage of it is likely to be comfortable with what came before or after. There are certain advantages to charting his full progress, and it's strange to realise that X's father, a minister and follower of Marcus Garvey, had a spiritual agenda with a boldness of its own: all Negroes to return to Africa, Africa to become a continent of black rule. But psychologising X's political pilgrimage - letting us see Elijah Mohammed, founder of the Nation of Islam, as a father-figure replacing the biological father who was killed when X was six - drains any particular statement or position of ideological force.

Spike Lee has negotiated with an astonishing range of institutions, agencies and individuals to make this film, from Coca-Cola to the African National Congress, all with different priorities and susceptibilities which he must consider even in the form of his thanks - Oprah Winfrey thanked in the name of Allah, Aretha Franklin in the name of Christ. Then he must consider his various overlapping audiences and his own aesthetic preferences.

It all gets on top of him rather. He starts with a provocative montage of the American flag burning down to an X, intercut with footage of the beating of Rodney King. But then he launches into an unduly meticulous re-creation of life in Roxbury, the black part of Boston, in the 1940s. The first half-hour of the film is a riot of zoot suits in stunning colour combinations (blue and yellow, or red striped with black) that could sometimes be mistaken for a musical. Lee may only be insisting on the vibrancy of black street culture of the period, but it almost looks as if he's delaying dealing with Malcolm's maturity - all the tricky stuff. Whatever the reason, Spike Lee makes a better advertisement for his hero's slide into crime than for his redemption by religion and politics. Never again is the camera so alive to colour, to movement, to the world.

The best part of the script is to do with something as apparently trivial as black hairstyles. We see young Malcolm getting his first 'conk' - a drastic chemical straightening job. When the alkali starts to bite, it feels like his scalp's on fire, but a proper conk must be left to work for as long as possible before being rinsed. 'Conking' is both a rite of passage into manhood and a symbol of self-oppression - burning the kink out of black hair to make it more like white. It also provides a fine comic scene later on, when the water supply turns out to have been cut off and Malcolm must choose between losing his scalp or his dignity, by plunging his head into the lavatory bowl.

In prison, where he is converted, Malcolm has his hair cut very short (another rite of passage). It's noticeable, though, that when he becomes a minister and courts a co-religionist, Sister Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett), she wears her hair elegantly straightened, and no one says a word about it. But then the gender stereotyping of Black Islam is something else that Spike Lee both insists on and can't quite deal with. One of the few sequences of Malcolm X that is an outright failure intercuts Elijah Mohammed's doctrine of female purity with Malcolm's wooing of Betty on the same patronising terms.

Denzel Washington's performance, without being commanding, is an uncanny reproduction of X's appearance and body language. It would have been easy, with only a slight change of camera angle, to convey that in passing on these prescriptions to a living, breathing human being, he finds them inadequate to reality. This might be a lie, but it would be a purposeful one. As it is, the laborious sequence makes Mohammed look like a prating patriarch, and X a patriarch's parrot.

As the film goes on (there are no further hairstyle transformations) Malcolm X becomes disappointingly unfocused, with public speeches taking pride of place, and then something suspiciously like travelogue, when X goes on pilgrimage to Mecca. Sister Betty reads his letters to his followers in lieu of sermons, but the faithful are few. Washington gives Malcolm X more charm in public than in private; he smiles more often on a podium, even with a hostile audience, than anywhere else. This seems true to someone who lived by words, and who survives more by virtue of having written an autobiography than by any actual achievement.

Spike Lee ends Malcolm X with a burst of his own rhetoric, showing us children in Soweto carrying Malcolm X placards, and having Nelson Mandela sing X's praises on camera - rather incongruously, since one of X's solutions to racism in America was a sort of self-imposed apartheid. Malcolm X's life doesn't in the end provide Lee with enough for his purposes, and he must borrow something from a different struggle and a different politics, from a martyr who has more than his martyrdom to offer.

(Photograph omitted)

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