Paul Beatty has just won the Man Booker Prize for his novel ‘Sell Out’…
The title throws me back to ‘No Sell Out’, a seminal piece of hip hop history by Keith LeBlanc, which sampled an excerpt from Malcolm X’s legendary speech… a work on wax, which I used to hear when growing up… when summers were consistently sweltering … when Public Enemy and Big Daddy Kane were declaring, with pointed urgency, not to ‘believe the hype’ and that there could be, categorically, ‘no half-steppin’ to be taken amidst any naysaying voices trying to dissuade you from believing in and/ or expressing your innate greatness …
…which, in turn, sent me hurtling forward to the present day… quite some days post ‘Malcolm X’ screening at BFI Southbank. As part of the current ‘Black Star’ schedule, it was my first, ever viewing of the unfolding dichotomy of life-amidst-lynchings, projecting and protecting a ‘rep’ and the entirety of multi-faceted drama arising inbetween. Director/Actor, Spike Lee, boldly takes the helm of this labour of love (the first option, of which, dates back to heralded writer, James Baldwin’s first scripted version, in the late 1960’s), with an accomplished and gritty deftness… availing himself of an unflinching approach to expressing such an arc, which grabs you by the shoulders and pins you to your seat, from the get-go.
Lee captures the macrocosm of a seething America, trapped within the turmoil of violence and racism, in microscopic detail. Through a whirlwind of sound, vision and movement, the expanse of screen bursts vigorous story-telling, from hi-visibility power struggles of the streets, to the high-colour dress and dancehall days of Harlem. Of course, none of this can be achieved without the tour de force ensemble cast of players, whom, to a man and woman, summon up the absolute definition of authenticity and truth.
As the title role of Malcolm X, Denzel Washington delivers an acting 101. From the highs of becoming ‘the main man on the scene’, the denigrating lows of becoming ‘a number’ whilst incarcerated, to the turning point of his revelation of faith, Washington’s characterisation is as close to complete, as one can get. His on-screen opposite, the ever-engaging Angela Bassett,’co-chairs’ the piece, as Betty Shabazz, encapsulating sheer dignity and class, with deceptive simplicity. Having poured relentless tension out of the jar of biographical narrative, intermittent comic relief is served by Spike Lee, himself, who embodies overt humour, as Washington’s steadfastly devoted ally, ‘Shorty’. However, it is with Delroy Lindo that the epiphanies of Malcolm X’s journey are at their emotive best. Lindo, who plays ‘West Indian Archie’, is instantly unforgettable both, as, gangster in his ‘gambling-pomp’ (quite literally, making his affinity for numbers, pay) and ‘mentor’, taking Malcolm under his wing, as protégé. The quiet undercurrent of danger-in-designer suits, is a masterclass in menace, which serves to make the later, shared scene between a down-and-out, Archie, living in squalor and having suffered a stroke, and the post prison-release, reformed, X, beyond poignant, utterly heartbreaking, yet a wholeheartedly uplifting lesson in total love and forgiveness. Some time before the agonising ending, this was when I, absolutely, began to shed tears.
Faced with such extreme purity, I was absorbed by humility… embraced by a humanity, which transported me away from my plush, red seat. Out of my dramaturgical comfort zone, into a world, still ravaged by sorrow and injustice…and yet, one in which cinematic seasons can demonstrate how real stardom celebrates that the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart…. Where the gift of experiencing and sharing this with one another, makes us all stars.
©A_F_R_O_W2016-2019. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
The amazing ‘Black Star’ Season is on NOW, at BFI Southbank and nationwide! Click-through for more at:-
Heartfelt @A_F_R_O_W-Appreciation to Ashley Clarke for the recommendation and Victoria Humphrys for the prize!