February 17-23, 2005
Malcolm X (Mon., Feb. 21, 6 p.m., $7-$15, International House, 3701 Chestnut St., 215-895-6542)/Malcolm X: Make It Plain (Mon., Feb. 21, 9 p.m., WHYY-TV)/X ($26.99 DVD) It's morbidly appropriate that International House, PBS and Warner Bros. have chosen the 40th anniversary of Malcolm X's assassination to honor the incendiary African-American leader. Defined as much by his violent death as his often, though not always, confrontational words, Malcolm's image remains that of an agitator who reaped what he sowed. If, as per his infamous statement, John F. Kennedy's assassination was a matter of "chickens coming home to roost," Malcolm's death at the hands of members of the Nation of Islam, whose separatist policies he endorsed and then repudiated, can be seen as an echo of his own unforgiving rhetoric.
Still, given that the four decades since his death have produced few leaders fit to challenge him, it's essential not to let Malcolm's death overshadow his life, which is as complicated and contradictory as that of any person with the courage to reinvent him- or herself in the public eye. The son of a Garveyite preacher who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, Malcolm Little became a small-time hood and hustler, underwent a jailhouse conversion, and became the public face of the Nation of Islam, whose militancy and racial separatism put them at odds with both white segregationists and the nonviolent civil rights movement. After years of calling civil rights leaders "Uncle Tom," Malcolm's disillusionment with the Nation and his pilgrimage to Mecca convinced Malcolm to adopt a more inclusive stance, a stunning evolution too often overshadowed by his history of provocation. In charting the full course of Malcolm's life, not reducing him to a collection of sensational quotes, both Spike Lee's X and the documentaries Malcolm X and Malcolm X: Make It Plain do justice to the scope of his existence, albeit in ways different enough to suggest his legacy continues to be contested.
After Alex Haley's The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Lee's biopic is undoubtedly the most familiar version of Malcolm's life. Its three and a half hours spread over a two-DVD set, the movie is blunt, occasionally searing, overlong and impossible to ignore. That it opens with footage of the Rodney King beating dates the movie not at all; if Lee's contention that little had changed since Malcolm's day might have seemed simplistic in 1992, the fact that little has changed in the 13 years since makes the assertion hard to dismiss. Denzel Washington's performance ooks even more impressive in light of his recent turn towards caricature compare the teary tremble in Malcolm's eyes as he meets Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.) for the first time with his mannered fumbling in last year's Man on Fire and The Manchurian Candidate and sharpens the irony that Denzel got his Oscar for playing a corrupt cop rather than a black revolutionary. But X ultimately can't contain its subject's complexity, and the movie's leisurely pace (to say nothing of its extraneous tribute to MGM musicals) robs Malcolm's speeches of their urgency.
Arnold Perl's 1972 documentary, which screens at International House on Monday, has urgency to burn: The segue from Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" to The Last Poets' "Niggers Are Scared of Revolution" sets the tone for a breathless compilation which focuses on Malcolm's fiery orations. (In case that's not enough confrontation, a talk by Amiri Baraka follows the screening.) Mixed with excerpts from the Autobiography read by James Earl Jones are Malcolm's greatest hits (many restaged verbatim in Lee's movie), from his declaration that African-Americans were "the victims of democracy" to his vow to pursue the rights of man "by any means necessary" (repeated four times for good measure). Although Lee's movie connects the dots, the jumps in Malcolm's public statements are more abrupt here, and therefore more striking: Malcolm goes from calling whites "a filthy race of devils" to saying, "It's not a case of being good or bad blacks or whites, but being good or bad human beings." Though it skimps on Malcolm's personal life, Malcolm X is the most powerful record of his public evolution. (Perl and James Baldwin co-wrote the script on which Lee based his movie, and the documentary is included on the DVD.)
Make It Plain, a 1994 postscript to the Eyes on the Prize series, employs many of the same clips as Perl's film, as well as \interviews with figures ranging from Ossie Davis and Sonia Sanchez to Malcolm's surviving siblings (totally absent from Lee's film, rarely seen in Perl's). Though it doesn't offer anything like the visceral involvement of Perl's film, it's more historically complete, especially good with the public betrayal of Malcolm's brother Wilfred, who denounced Malcolm as a "Judas, Brutus and Benedict Arnold" for leaving the Nation of Islam, a statement he says he was handed seconds before delivering it.
These three films don't form a complete picture of Malcolm X's life, but they work mightily to place him in history's center rather than on its fringe, and to erase the idea that he and Martin Luther King Jr. were polar opposites. The attempt to reconcile their ideologies reduced Do the Right Thing's Smiley to gibberish, but towards the end of his life, Malcolm reached out to any leader interested in "positive results." That the gesture got him killed remains the most tragic contradiction in a life big enough for many of them.
"Necrorealism: The Photography and Films of Yevgeny Yufit" (through April 3, Pageant Gallery, 607 Bainbridge St., 215-925-1535) A protege of Russian Ark director Alexander Sokurov, Yevgeny Yufit explores the netherworld between life and death as well the spongy terrain between surrealism and slapstick. Structured as quasi-silent films accompanied by sporadic industrial clanks as well as rare bursts of dialogue, Yufit's films have some of Sokurov's blunt obliqueness; their liquid black-and-white images, often populated by stooped half-men indulging their primitive urges, are immediately striking, but their significance emerges only in retrospect. (In a few cases, I'm still waiting.) Luckily, Pageant Gallery's exhibition allows time for reflection and repeat viewings. Continuing the welcome trend of galleries picking up the art-house slack, four of Yufit's features Papa, Father Frost Is Dead; The Wooden Room; Silver Heads; and Killed by Lightning -- as well as a collection of early shorts will be shown in daily rotation (two a day Wednesday through Friday, the complete filmography on weekends), building up to the Philadelphia premiere of the brand-new Bipedalism in late March, with a scheduled appearance by the director.
"Dalí" (through May 15, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th and the Parkway)/Un chien andalou ($19.95 DVD)/L'Âge d'or ($24.95 DVD) I'll never know who unleashed Un chien andalou on a bunch of unsuspecting high schoolers, but I'll forever be grateful to the mischievous soul who threaded Salvador Dal' and Luis Buñuel's 1929 surrealist salvo into the projector while I sat awaiting another tedious daily assembly. If I knew Dal', it was as the guy behind that poster with the melting clocks, but there's no forgetting your first encounter with that infamous eye-slice, especially when it takes you unawares. So many of Dal''s images have become kitschy cliches it's difficult to imagine how shocking they once were, but the sheer persistence of Un chien andalou wears down the comfort of familiarity. No matter how often you've seen it, something is bound to take you unawares.
L'Âge d'or, released in 1930, repeats Un chien andalou's obsessions (body hair, mutilated extremities, the association of sexual guilt and livestock) and fits them into a sputtering love story whose narrative shreds only makes its disjunctions more jarring. More Buñuel's creation than Dali's, the film trains Dalí's symbolic attacks on the makers of meaning: the upper classes and the church, who appear as skeletons and walking corpses consumed with perverse lusts. (The lusts, at least, meet with fitful approval.) Often paired in repertory, the two films are newly available as separate DVDs (or, for the region-free, on a single British disc); Kino's L'Âge d'or includes commentary, while Facets' Un chien andalou embellishes the 17-minute film with a couple of short documentaries, though the contrasty transfer is hardly ideal. (My copy also includes a burst of video static at 13:27, which was identical on three different players.)
Dalí's brief film career is also part of the Art Museum's colossal retrospective, though only on video. (Obligatory grumble: Would they exhibit prints in lieu of paintings?) You can rent Un chien andalou or Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, with its Dalí-designed dream sequence, any day, but the Art Museum is the only place to see Destino, the seven-minute short conceived by Dalí and Walt Disney that was completed in 2003.