Malcolm X (1992) vs. American Movie (1999)
This was an interesting pairing because both films address the concept of the American Dream, albeit from vastly different approaches. Malcolm X is all about how this dream can never be realized for a certain group of Americans until the biases of others are dropped. American Movie shows that it's possible to chase one's dream, even if the chances of attaining it are slim to none.
Let me start off by saying that I have seen American Movie many times, but this was my first go round with Malcolm X. While I always wanted to see Malcolm, I really was in no hurry due to the length and my limited interest in biopics. Obviously, the odds were against Spike and Denzel.
My knowledge of the life of Malcolm X is fairly limited, just the general knowledge one picks up about him in your basic high school or college US history course. I'll admit that I was somewhat expecting the film to be 3 hours of preaching about how the white man is the devil. The first thing that I must address is the performance of Denzel Washington. This is the best performance I have ever seen from him. From hustler to convict to reformed man to leader to independent thinker, I believed in him every step of the way. Minor touches like the way he adjusts his speech patterns when addressing a black audience and a mostly white college audience were especially nice. Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman Jr., and Delroy Lindo all deliver memorable supporting roles. Even Spike Lee (who usually annoys me in his other roles) does a fine job. The relationship between Malcolm and Betty was touching, especially after his break with Elijah Muhammad when his life was consistently in danger. As I said earlier, part of me was expecting a lot of white devil talk and, yes, that is very present in the middle of the film; however, Lee is not afraid to turn a judgmental eye on the Nation of Islam and its leaders. This is especially apparent when Malcolm's blind following of Muhammad is destroyed by claims of illegitimate children and an eye-opening pilgrimage to Mecca. Malcolm returns with a softened rhetoric, one that acknowledges the need of all races to work together to achieve peace. Despite its length, I think Spike did a great job with the pacing of the film; there really was no point where the story dragged. Unfortunately, the ending of the film (after the eulogy) with the schoolkids celebrating Malcolm X day by standing up and saying "I'm Malcolm X" was a little too heavy-handed regarding his legacy for my liking. Overall, this is one of the best biopics I've seen.
There's one scene early on in the film where Mark Borchardt is working on the casting for Northwestern and he says "They're making a mockery out of my words. This whole thing is turning into a theatrical mockery". I think this quote perfectly sums up the feelings of many regarding the motives of Chris Smith in his making of this documentary. I was in the film club at my high school for two years (right when this film was released) so this movie really hits home for me. I wasn't the kid who had any great film aspirations (I just had several horrific film deaths, seems like horror is the preferred route for the DIY-ers), but I certainly knew several guys who believed they were destined for greatness. Although I haven't seen any of them since I graduated high school, I could easily see one of them becoming a Mark Borchardt-like character, which really allows me to empathize with him and his struggles. I think that Chris Smith feels the same way and that his purpose in making American Movie was not to exploit someone that most would consider a loser for laughs, but to present the story of a man whose life is given meaning through the chasing of his dream. Mike Schank is fantastic, but the real scene stealer for me is Mark's Uncle Bill, who continues to finance Mark's projects even though he'll never make back any of his money and always serves as the voice of reason (although I don't think it's always intentional). One of my favorite scenes is when Mark is trying to put one of the actor's head through a cupboard door but it won't break. It's a perfect example of the futility of the whole project. I wish the DVD had Coven as one of the extras, I'd love to see what it actually looks like. (It also loses points for reminding me of the Packers winning the Super Bowl in '97)
EDIT: I'm blind, Coven is on the DVD.
My verdict: This is a real tough decision. If this was based on which film is more re-watchable, I'd go with American Movie, simply because it is half the length and has a lot more laughs. Ultimately, I'm going to have to reward Spike Lee for tackling an epic biopic and actually pulling it off. Malcolm X moves on to the next round.