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Denzel Washington Puts Power Behind Oratory

NEW YORK -- Preaching in the words and style of Malcolm X, standing sometimes in the same places where he stood, Denzel Washington began to understand the man's power. "You get up in front of a hundred or a thousand people, and you go on this journey together, and you feed them this call-and-response style of preaching, and it's like a drug, a powerful drug," Washington told me, a few days before the film opened on Wednesday.

Had you ever done any preaching before?

"No. (But) my father was a minister for 50 years. I've attended a lot of church services."

In Spike Lee's "Malcolm X," preaching to various congegrations - in storefronts and on street corners, in vast auditoriums and at Harvard - Malcolm comes across as a natural orator, able to speak the languages of his various audiences as a politician might. If Washington had not been able to carry those scenes, nothing else in the movie would have had the same impact. But Washington said he didn't practice preaching, not in any conventional sense.

"I didn't sit at home with a pedestal. We had a few guys come in from the Nation of Islam, and we had a training course. The way Spike has things set up, he has buildings all around his main office; wardrobe over here and props over there. And I would rehearse all day long, and at 6, I would start the classes with the Nation of Islam, and we would march and recite, and they would discipline us. Finally, they made me get up and speak and that helped a lot. That sorta got me going, getting in front of people and not feeling afraid. And a lot of prayers."

He smiled, and it was an easy smile, reflecting the warm personality he projected in movies like "The Mighty Quinn" and "Mo' Better Blues," but what is surprising in "Malcolm X," even for his admirers, is how wide a range he plays, from that warmth to despair, anger and vision. And what was surprising for me, talking to him, was how political he was - how willing he was to continue the discussion that Malcolm X begins in the film.

The movie covers more than 20 years in Malcolm's life, takes him from a Pullman porter to a numbers runner, puts him through prison and the National of Islam, shows him growing from a street-corner hood to a world leader, and there is not a moment when Washington is not convincing. The performance establishes him as the front-runner for this year's Academy Award.

"This was the first film where I did not want to stop shooting," he was saying. "Especially the speeches. Once I got used to it, I just kept going and going. The hardest scene for me to shoot was probably the assassination. There was a dark feeling on the set, and I felt shackled in it. Throughout the film, I lived Malcolm's life, whether the cameras were on or off. The guys who were my bodyguards in the film went with me everywhere in the course of the day. Now here was the one scene where I wasn't in control, and I felt like I had abandoned my friends. Especially the guys who had to shoot me. The first take that we did, we had to stop, and some people were crying and upset. It was an emotional couple of days."

The film uses a certain amount of documentary footage of the real Malcom X, and it's uncanny at times how well Washington is able to suggest him - since the two men do not really look much alike, and glasses and hats can accomplish only so much. It's as if Washington's very bearing, his attitude, mirrors Malcolm.

"I've been asked a lot, 'Are you Malcolm X?' In 'A Soldier's Story,' my character had killed a guy; does that make me a murderer? No. It might appear to some people that I have an agenda in doing roles like the ones I played in 'Glory,' 'Soldier's Story,' or Steven Biko in 'Cry Freedom' and now Malcolm X. It's not a planned agenda. I don't speak for my work; I like to let my work speak for me."

The roles Washington mentioned have a wide range - from a Civil War soldier to a South African civil rights leader, and he has also played a Jamacian sheriff, a big-city cop, a lawyer and a musician. He is part of a generation of major African-American stars who emerged in the 1980s; others would include Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Wesley Snipes and Morgan Freeman, and their movies have shown a more complete picture of the many black experiences in this country than Hollywood attempted in earlier decades. But it took a long time before Hollywood was ready to tell the story of Malcolm X.

There are lines in the "Malcolm X" screenplay that were written 25 years ago by James Baldwin. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Malcolm as told to Alex Haley, was published in the 1960s. But Malcolm's message was one that many 1960s liberals, not to mention conservatives, were uncomfortable with. At a time when the civil rights marchers were singing, "Black and white together," Malcolm was preaching a separatist message. And by the time he made his journey to Mecca and returned convinced that all men of good will could work together, an assassin's bullet was awaiting him. The right time

Do you think it's good or bad that this movie is coming out in 1992, instead of 1982 or 1972?

"I think it's awful that a speech Malcolm made in 1962 has to play underneath a videotape of someone getting beaten today, and nothing's changed," he said. "That Rodney King footage could have been Selma, Ala., or whatever, and it's Los Angeles in '91. Of course, I'm glad the movie's come along now - while I was here to do it - and not earlier. Maybe it was the right timing; maybe it was just time to be made."

What has changed to make it the right time?

"The fact is, not a whole hell of a lot has changed. When we took one direction instead of another, people said Martin Luther King was safer. That seemed to be the doctrine, and they got a lot of good things done and changed a lot of laws, but what you come to find out is, you can't change the way people think.

"In the '50s and '60s, somewhere in there, we got mixed up with integration and assimilation. We lost a part of our own culture and strength, and I think that Malcolm was telling us, know who you are, learn who you are, learn what your true history is - so that when you walk out the door, you'll feel good about yourself because that's what the Italian-American does. That what the Jewish-American does. That's what every nationality does; they're solid about who they are, and the African -American was the one who said, well, we just want to be able to fit in.

"Now people are realizing that the things Malcolm said then make a heck of a lot of sense. To know who you are, to be economically strong as a community. He called it nationalism. They called it separatism, but all he was saying was, "Hey, if you live in that community, why not spend your own money in that community? Why not own the businesses in that community? Everybody else does that."

Washington was very serious, very intense, and as he spoke, I felt myself in the presence of . . . not an actor . . . a politician, a preacher, a leader.

"The frustration that young people have today goes across color lines; in Los Angeles, they tried to make the riots a racial issue, but it's not a racial issue. It's a frustration. There were whites out there, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, African-Americans, Spanish. They're watching their government steal and this was their chance. How can you tell someone, 'Don't do that; we'll put you in jail,' while you're bouncing checks all over the place, and Iran-contra scamming and doing every kind of thing? The kids are watching it on TV: OK, this is what our supposed leaders are doing. So we want our piece of the pie, especially when our leaders are doing that, and we can't eat." 

One of the things that bothered him the most during the LA riots, Washington said, was that television news seemed to linger on the divisive images, and ignore anything that painted a more balanced picture.

"Reginald Denny, the truck driver who got beat up - the doctors that operated on him, the surgeons that put him back together, were black. That's not important to TV. Just show that tape; show him getting beat up again. I was down there the next day and tried to help. The TV cameramen weren't interested in people who were doing positive things. They were looking for the next fire. Find something smoldering! If you can't find anything, light something."

He sighed. "Maybe with this election, we've turned a corner. Maybe people are fed up with the way things have been going. I feel a little hope."

In Malcolm's last decade, I said, every time people began to feel a little hope, someone else came along with a gun and ended the hope.

"That was the case in the '60s. They don't use bullets anymore; they use character assassination. There's such a lack of leaders now because those who have taken chances in their lives can't really serve in public office. Would you want anyone as president who could survive the job the tabloids would do on him? That was what was really interesting about Clinton. Here he was crucified in front of everybody, and he survived. He's the first one who's been able to survive that character assassination.

"I don't think we've cultivated leadership in this country. We knocked off a whole generation of leadership, with bullets or character assassination. And I think that scared the heck of a lot of people, and nobody wants to jump out there. Look at the case of Cuomo, who will never be what he had the potential to be, because he, I guess, had skeletons in the closet and was afraid of getting out there and being chopped up. And I take my hat off to Clinton for surviving. So who cares who he slept with? People are saying, I can't get a meal. How can I pay my rent?"

As Washington was talking politics, I was thinking, maybe we should get back to talking about the movie. And then I realized we were talking about the movie.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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