NEW YORK — `MALCOLM X,' the eagerly awaited new movie by Spike Lee, opens with a roar.
An outstretched American flag goes up in flames as the credits roll, intercut with shots of urban strife including the Rodney King beating that sparked riots in Los Angeles earlier this year. The screen is primed for all the fireworks one might expect from the pyrotechnic combination of filmmaker Lee, civil-rights leader X, and the smoldering tension of American race relations.
Then, as the credits fade and the story of Malcolm X starts to unfold, the unexpected happens. The turbulence and confrontation fade quietly away - and what emerges in their place is a "bio-pic" in the old Hollywood tradition, telling the story of a hero's life in straightforward, conventional terms.
It's done with impressive skill and style, sometimes approaching the level of Mr. Lee's best work in the past. But it's hardly the explosive experience that the movie's advance publicity - or Lee's gadfly remarks on its social importance - have led moviegoers to anticipate.
In the end, "Malcolm X" is more respectable than revolutionary, more inspirational than inspired. Controversy has already surrounded it within the African-American community where questions of emphasis and nuance are being debated among those who have studied Malcolm X's legacy.
In the broader community, however, the film is likely to have a less-heated reception. Well over three hours long, it has much to teach about the mercurial life and evolving thought of a towering civil-rights figure. What it doesn't have is the cinematic fire that would have made it as invigorating as it is illuminating.
Following the outline of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," which was written in association with author Alex Haley, the film begins with flashbacks to Malcolm's early life, with a loving mother and a dedicated father whose defiance of white supremacy lead to his untimely death.
The movie then follows Malcolm as a young adult, when his changing lifestyles are reflected by a series of different names and nicknames. He's called Detroit Red during his time as a street hustler and drug dealer; he's called Satan as a prison inmate with a penchant for trouble; and he's called Malcolm X after converting to the Nation of Islam religion and becoming chief public spokesman for Elijah Muhammad, its leader. He takes his final name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, after discovery of Elijah Muhamma d's hypocrisy drives him to split with his mentor and establish an Islamic institution of his own.
Through all these events, the film traces Malcolm's gradually shifting conception of the white power that dominates his social and cultural background. First he shows a sad capitulation to white hegemony by straightening his hair in a painful and degrading process.
As time passes he grows increasingly antagonistic toward the entrenched strength of white people, eventually deciding they are literally "devils" in keeping with Elijah Muhammad's paranoid theology. Ultimately he explores the roots of traditional Islam and learns that men and women of all colors and races can be united in divinely inspired love. A quest for harmony and understanding replaces the separatism that surged through his earlier teaching.
And at this moment in his evolution he is gunned down by forces that may include hate- mongers from the Nation of Islam, the FBI, the CIA, and perhaps all of the above. His lately found message of love and hope lingers, however, in a coda to the film that features imposing black figures from actor Ossie Davis to international activist Nelson Mandela, all celebrating the best in Malcolm X's heritage. This provides an upbeat and uplifting finale to the picture, although it seems more male-dominated than n ecessary, accompanying talk of black "manhood" with schoolroom shots that privilege boys over girls.
"Malcolm X" could not be more traditional in its approach. The story develops its themes and messages through straightforward linear narrative, varied only by a few flashbacks and the impressionistic coda at the end. Its treatment of Malcolm X is respectful to the point of hagiography, detailing his weaknesses (mainly in his misspent youth) so that his goodness will seem all the more triumphant in the later scenes.
While it would be difficult to make him a dull figure, given the constantly shifting course of his thoughts, talents, and activities, the picture strives to simplify his complexities, rendering them in ways that allow for easy assimilation by the widest possible audience.
Among other results of this strategy, Malcolm's profound religious experiences are portrayed in the outer-directed terms of Hollywood-style imagery, with no attempt to capture their inwardly felt realities through innovative or experimental means - although these experiences are in no way demeaned or devalued, a fact that pokes yet another hole in the contention of some unobservant critics that today's films are overwhelmingly hostile to religious values.
What makes "Malcolm X" consistently alive and absorbing despite its length and predictability is the extraordinary performance of Denzel Washington in the title role, and the highly polished filmmaking skills that Lee has developed in his five earlier movies.
On the screen almost every minute, Mr. Washington is never less than riveting to watch and hear, capturing the subtleties of Malcolm's personality and the magnetism of his public persona without lapsing into shallow imitation or showy grandstanding for an instant. Lee reinforces the rhythms of his performance with rhythmic editing patterns and enhances the moods of the story with an expressive color scheme that grows ever more dark and monochromatic. Lending spice are some eye-catching set pieces, such a s a bravura musical number near the beginning and well-calculated use of occasional docudrama-type footage.
Praise also goes to the supporting cast - especially Al Freeman, Jr., whose portrayal of Elijah Muhammad is utterly convincing - and to composer Terence Blanchard, whose music score darkens along with the mood of the story and the colors of the production design. The cinematography by Lee's frequent collaborator Ernest Dickerson is as vigorous as always, although Mr. Dickerson concedes too often to Lee's overfondness for wide-angle lenses. The screenplay, credited to Lee and the late Arnold Perl, is alwa ys lucid.
* "Malcolm X" has a PG-13 rating. It shows the crime and drug-related activities of the protagonist's early life and includes some harrowingly violent moments as well as rough language and sexuality.