Monday, December 28, 2015

Birthday Take: Denzel Washington in "Malcolm X" (1992)

Denzel Washington in Malcolm X
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Denzel Washington
Born: December 28, 1954 (61 years old) 
Nomination: Best Actor (nominated) as Malcolm X in Malcolm X

The Take

In the echelon of great actors, there are few African American actors who are as acclaimed as Denzel Washington. There's even a podcast made to honor his achievements. But what is it about his acting style that draws us in? Is it the aggressive and charismatic way that he speaks? Is it just that he has managed to cherry pick good roles with a rather successful rate? Whatever the reason is, he remains just as vital in his 60's as he did in his younger years when he appeared in films like Glory. If there's one compliment to his work that is inevitable beyond personal opinion, it's a legacy that spans more than three decades and several hits from each of those time periods. You may not have seen them all, but you'll be amazed that he's still around, even getting Oscar nominations as recently as 2012 for Flight.

If there was one performance however that will be his indomitable peak, it has to be director Spike Lee's Malcolm X. Having proven himself as a fiery director in the 80's, Lee's story of how he financed the film is itself an intriguing achievement of passion. Add in the fact that his biopic of controversial activist Malcolm X runs over three hours, and you get a good sense of why it needed to work. It needed the right actor to make the energy and controversy mean something within the filmed world. While this isn't Washington's first rodeo with Malcolm X (he played him on stage), it definitely required a lot out of him to be this aggressor and force that gave speeches and lured you in with his singular view. To say the least, Washington delivered on that with every ounce of his energy.

The most intriguing thing about Malcolm X is that this is a legitimate biopic. While it doesn't spend time on his infant days, the youthful exploits are on full display and capture a more innocent side to the eventual activist. The slow progression into his final form is itself an impressive work of cinema. All the while, the slow cooker that is Washington's performance gets more and more interesting until suddenly it explodes into the final persona. The fact that it even started to boil back down to a cool head by the end is an impressive work. A lot of credit needs to be owed to Lee, who has collaborated with Washington on several occasions. His aggressive style keeps things lively and confrontational. However, it takes great acting to keep up with that, and Lee thankfully found it with ease.

Among the more controversial wins in Oscars history is Washington's Best Actor loss to Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. To be fair, Pacino is a great actor. However, his win is part of a long history of rewriting wins by giving to an inferior role. For instance, Pacino lost to Art Carney's Harry and Tonto, despite starring in The Godfather Part II (arguably Pacino's best work period). His 1992 win is probably more due to fixing that wrong. Even if Washington does have two Oscars to his credit, his loss for Malcolm X feels criminal because it's one of those roles that is intense and showy in all of the right ways. He lures you in and demands attention. Maybe Pacino was still getting respect from his peers at the time, but it still seemed weird from a non-political point of view. It still does.

No matter what awards Washington would win for, he still comes across as one of the most charismatic actors in the right roles. Whether it be Training Day or American Gangster, he brings his all and demands attention every step of the way. He has the confidence necessary to lead a film of any stature, and he continues to remain relevant. While Malcolm X is his film to beat, he has continually came close many of times. Even if he's mostly doing action films now that don't require a lot out of him, he still has a great screen presence. The one hope is that we'll get one more Malcolm X-level acting performance out of him before he retires. One can only hope that it's sooner than later. 

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