Denzel Washington in Malcolm X.
Warner Bros./Everett Collection

In the wrong hands, a biographical epic can be a real snooze. In the right ones—and with a perceptive, expressive actor at its center—it can have a kind of transportive energy. Across three hours and then some, Spike Lee maps the life of the slain civil rights activist whose controversial words and deeds often cut against the grain of other, more moderate voices—like Martin Luther King, Jr.—who sought to change the lives of Black people in mid-20th century America. Malcolm X didn’t play nice with anyone; he was ideologically uncompromising, to the point of pious inflexibility. But as Denzel Washington plays him, his flaws and remarkable strengths merge into a dazzling whole. Washington plays Malcolm X’s charisma as a mode of seeking, a desire not to tamp down frustration and anger but to transform them into usable energy. Lee, respectful as he is, doesn’t ignore his hero’s flaws; he’s deeply invested in Malcolm X the human being, a complex figure whose mission was aborted before his best ideas could blossom.

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