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)

Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' embraces politics, religion, warfare, courage, love and loyalty, say creators
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
News
peopleThe Game of Thrones author said speculation about his health and death was 'offensive'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Arts and Entertainment
Sassoon threw his Military Cross into the Mersey
booksAn early draft of ‘Atrocities’ shows the anti-war sentiment was toned down before publication
Arts and Entertainment
Actors and technicians on the march against changes made by Hollande
theatreOpening performances of the Avignon theatre festival cancelled as actors and technicians walk out
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West performed in a chain mail mask at Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park
Rapper booed at Wireless over bizarre rant
Arts and Entertainment

They're back, they're big – and they're still spectacularly boring

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil