Spike Lee’s masterpiece biopic Malcolm X takes a stand on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. This visceral and earnest look at one of modern history’s most polarizing figures of the civil rights movement features a fierce Oscar-worthy performance from Denzel Washington. The film looks and sounds amazing with a gorgeous Dolby Vision transfer with hours of new and archival bonus features. Must Own
Malcolm Little (Denzel Washington) was just a hustler scamming his way from one payday to the next. Whatever he made, he blew away as fast as it hit his pocket. A small-time thief and drug addict, Malcolm is hit with a stiff jail sentence. While incarcerated, he meets Baines (Albert Hall) who introduces the troubled young man to the teachings of Islam and Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.). Once released, he is no longer Malcolm Little, he becomes Malcolm X and quickly rises in the ranks of the Nation of Islam as an outspoken and polarizing leader in the civil rights movement at a time when the country is undergoing dramatic and violent change.
As a general rule, I don’t enjoy biopics. I often find them trite exercises that fail to capture the true personality of the subject while glossing over the worst pieces (and usually the most interesting) of their personality to make them the undeniable “hero” of the story. I also dislike their tendencies to be over-rewarded Oscar bait with the lead actor or actress taking home glistening golden statues for movies that are generally bad. Then you get Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, a movie so good it was virtually shut out come awards season with only two Oscar nominations - Best Actor and Best Costume Design - and lost on both counts.
Not only is this easily Spike Lee’s best film as a writer and director, but it also features Denzel Washington delivering one of his fiercest, most passionate performances of his entire career. As a biopic, it doesn’t gloss over the life of Malcolm X. It starts early with his life as a criminal, his incarseration and conversion, and rise within the civil rights movement including his controversial take on the assassination of President Kennedy. It’s a genuine character arc with Washington fully embodying Malcolm instead of just reenacting greatest hits clips like so many other biopics that let their leads skate by with cop-out performances.
Granted 1992 was a stacked year for amazing films. Unforgiven, A Few Good Men, Scent of a Woman, and The Crying Game are all classics in their own right. But Malcolm X was better than many of these and deserved far more recognition. I love Al Pacino, but getting the Best Actor Oscar for starring wide-eyed into the middle distance while yelling every line isn’t his finest award-worthy moment. From Spike Lee’s direction and writing to Earnest Dickerson’s cinematography to the impecable production design work to Washington’s commanding performance - this is a film that deserved far more accolades than it was given during its original run.
For another take on Malcolm X - Read our 2012 Blu-ray Review
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Malcolm X returns to disc for a new three-disc 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection. With Spine Number 1160, the film gets a Region Free BD-100 disc for the 4K, a Region A BD-50 disc for the 1080p presentation, and a second Region A BD-50 disc for bonus features. All three discs are housed in a digipak case. Also included is a 38-page booklet featuring essays, Ossie Davis’ eulogy, and tech restoration information for the film.
While earning a strong Blu-ray release in 2012, that disc simply doesn’t hold up to Criterion’s exceptional 2160p 185:1 Dolby Vision presentation. From the first frames, the improvements in detail clarity are immediately obvious. Facial features, textures in costumes and scenery, and meticulous attention to detail in the film’s production design are all on display. Fine film grain is present throughout with a natural cinematic appeal without appearing too heavy or intrusive. Some of the newsreel reenactment footage is purposefully noisier in that regard.
Supervised by Ernest Dickerson, this transfer’s use of Dolby Vision HDR (and HDR10) is smartly applied without dramatically altering or overplaying colors - most of the time. For most of the run of the film primaries have a rich but balanced appeal with reds, blues, and yellows offering nuanced shades while skin tones look human and healthy without being over-peached or saturated. The only notable change I spotted was the stretch where Malcolm is in prison and converts. These scenes seem to have been cast a little bluer than the past Blu-ray release, but it’s not unappealing nor is pushed into that horrible teal/orange spectrum. The contrast is on point with brilliantly crisp whites - the scene in Mecca is a highlight in that regard. Black levels are deep and inky with exceptional shadow separation for a lovely sense of depth and dimension to the image.
This release comes in with an excellent DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. Comparing the two tracks they sound virtually identical. I replayed Malcolm’s first press conferences, his trip to Mecca, and a few other sequences and didn’t notice anything different, or at least not enough difference to catch my ear. The film is a bit front heavy keeping to the front/center/side channels but there are several active sequences that spread out nicely into the other channels for full surround experience. From Malcolm's working train cars to the echoes of the prison to his fateful final appearance, there’s plenty of sonic heft in the soundscape. Flipping on my receiver’s DTS Neural:X function was a nice touch helping expand the sense of atmosphere and space. Throughout the film, the dialog is clean and clear without issue and Terence Blanchard’s score is a beautifully somber accompaniment to the film.
In addition to bringing back a slew of archival extra features, Criterion also brought in three new interviews for the film. Of the package I’d personally say the 2005 Audio Commentary featuring Spike Lee and his companions and the 1972 documentary are the best of the bunch. Lee and company offer a lot of insights into the production, researching the various players and recreating the era. The 1972 documentary from Arnold Pearl is a richly informative piece well worth digging into. The new interviews with Spike Lee, Delory Lindo, and Terence Blanchard are nice new extras for the set even if they're not the longest or most expansive offerings.
4K Ultra HD Disc
Blu-ray Disc One
Blu-ray Disc Two
Malcolm X is a tremendous piece of filmmaking. It’s not only Spike Lee at his best, it’s Denzel Washington at his peak delivering a passionate commanding performance as one of the most conflicted and polarizing figures of modern American history. It set the bar high for biopics, one that few films have ever come close to matching. Now to celebrate its 30th Anniversary, the film picks up a terrific 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release from The Criterion Collection. The new Dolby Vision transfer is magnificent, the audio is crisp and clear, and the hours of bonus features are excellent and well worth digging into. It may have taken me way too long to get to this disc, but I’m glad I finally did. Must Own