Welcome to Framed, a new column at Cinematical that celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time.
Malcolm X was mostly overlooked at the 1992 Academy Awards -- and I'm not really sure why. It's arguably one of the ten best films of that entire decade, and it's really hard to figure out how such a powerful and beautifully shot film featuring a fantastic Denzel Washington performance didn't garner more attention. Don't be put off, though -- just because the critical community was largely indifferent to Malcolm X doesn't diminish the fact that it's a gorgeous and finely-crafted piece of cinema.
What occasionally gets lost when it comes to Spike Lee movies -- mostly because people seem to have a hard time separating the man from his art -- is that Lee is a genuinely gifted filmmaker. His work with frequent cinematographer Ernest Dickerson has a distinctive look and some recurring shot set-ups that instantly identify the films as "Spike Lee movies." Malcolm X is no exception -- once again featuring Lee and Dickerson's unique visual approach, but also adding in some additional flourishes we hadn't seen prior. However, not everything in Malcolm X has to be in motion to be appreciated fully -- this film does feature some great static images. I've chosen a specific one from near the end of the film because I think it's really impressive from a technical standpoint.
The frame in question appears at the 2:40:59 mark of the film on the Netflix Watch Instantly version (don't let the poor transfer fool you -- the DVD is better, but hopefully the film gets a cleanup in a Blu-ray transfer in the near future). In this scene, Lee and Dickerson have placed Washington in a Mosque in Mecca. Malcolm has left the Nation of Islam and has made his pilgrimage to the holy land as a sign of his faith. The still is packed with meaning, but it's also exciting from a more traditional filmmaking point of view.
Malcolm X was the first American movie (and non-documentary) to be allowed to film in Mecca. Naturally, because of this rare honor, Lee and crew had to be completely respectful of how they set up and shot everything for this particular scene. Because of these concerns, I'd guess that shooting this sequence was probably more difficult than it would have been on a set at a studio. Lee and Dickerson don't let that deter them, though, and they wind up with a really interesting image.
The first thing that pops out about this image is the lights. Countless bulbs and an ornate chandelier hang above the actor providing the shot with a really warm glow. The circular pattern of the lights gives the image not only meaning, but a distinctive look that draws our attention in. The decision to film them in this wide angle makes the lighting set up even more impressive in that they're not only serving as illumination for the scene, but they're also saying something about what's happening as well. I'm not sure if they used any external lights or not, but if they did, it really doesn't show -- which is one more great thing about this shot. We get the sense that this is almost documentary footage (Lee shoots most of the time on the pilgrimage this way, and it works) and that the set-up is very minimal. That makes the effect of the image more intriguing because the appearance is that Lee and Dickerson are merely working with what is already there and not adding any sort of artifice to it.
The wide angle serves another purpose too -- it allows us to see this immense location and amazing architecture, and how Malcolm fits into it. Lee uses the perspective to convey a bevy of information to the viewer, showing us that this is a very spiritual moment while also demonstrating how Malcolm is undergoing a transformation (it's no accident that he looks small in this immense, holy location). The way the scene is set up, with the camera panning from across the ceiling to a low wide angle shot, and then creeping in for the eventual close-up is amazing, but you still get the sense of grandeur from the single frame alone. Lee makes the wise decision to keep a certain amount of distance -- giving us a feeling of the scope and magnitude instead. That requires a great deal of restraint on the filmmaker's part, but it's the right choice in this instance.
Other elements, such as the framing and use of contrasting colors (the gray suit stands in contrast to the red of the floor quite distinctly) add to the composition as a whole in an understated way. Lee and Dickerson have crafted a painting on celluloid in this image, one that not only resonates on a subconcious level, but one that pleases the eye from a technical standpoint. Frames and scenes like this are found throughout Malcolm X -- and that's why the film still stands as the duo's greatest collaboration for me.