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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Malcolm X -- Spike Lee's epic biopic about the black minister, leader, and human rights activist -- features some scenes of racial violence, notably disturbing news footage, and two violent incidents that involve guns and blood. Language is strong, but infrequent, except for many uses of the "N" word. Malcolm's early days living a life of crime include many references to and images of drugs and prostitution, and he also has an active sex life (everything changes when he becomes a Muslim). Teens should be OK, given the overall power and significance of this film, and the undeniably positive message it brings.
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What's the story?
His home burned to the ground, his minister father murdered, Malcolm Little is taken from his family at an early age to flounder and eventually find opportunity in crime. A long prison sentence turns his life around, for behind bars he meets a man named Baines, who teaches him self-respect and enlightenment through the teachings of Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad. Back on the streets, Malcolm sheds his last name and preaches that 400 years of oppression is enough. He tells his congregation not to hate the white man, but to love themselves, to respect themselves, to defend themselves -- by any means necessary. After a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca makes him see that different races can indeed live together harmoniously, his philosophy changes, but not before the hatred he's sparked turns against him.
Is it any good?
Based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Spike Lee's chronicle of the rise and fall of the outspoken -- and still-controversial -- civil rights leader isn't the angry film one might expect. Perhaps MALCOLM X's greatest achievement is the fair-mindedness with which it treats its subject. Lee is honest in giving us a flawed hero, a man blinded by his cause, a leader unafraid to publicly denounce his own philosophies as he awakens to new and more hopeful ones. Denzel Washington turns in a stunning, dignified performance without ever seeming like he's acting. As his wife, Angela Bassett is also outstanding, as are Albert Hall and Al Freeman Jr. as the men who give his life purpose.
The movie does an excellent job, too, of stressing the importance of education, reminding us that we each have the power not just to change our own life, but the lives of many. That's a terrific seed to plant in the heads of high school students looking toward college and a future career. As with Gandhi, another outstanding true story with similar themes, the movie's lengthy running time doesn't seem at all extravagant, but rather necessary to give a complex life the dimension it deserves.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the advantages and limitations of using movies to dramatize the lives of famous or important people. Can movies tell the story of lives in ways that other media, such as books or radio, can't? Where do they fall short?
Talk about the film's violence. How is it different from, say, an action movie or a thriller? How does it affect you when someone is beat up or shot in this movie?
How do the lessons of this movie apply today? Does discrimination still exist?
- In theaters: November 18, 1992
- On DVD or streaming: February 8, 2005
- Cast: Al Freeman, Denzel Washington, Spike Lee
- Director: Spike Lee
- Studio: Warner Bros.
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Activism
- Character strengths: Compassion, Empathy
- Run time: 201 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: a scene of violence, and for drugs and some language.
- Last updated: September 21, 2019
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