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Episode 012: Malcolm X + Da 5 Bloods

Recorded on Saturday, June 27, 2020

Why talk about only one Spike Lee Joint when you can talk about two? This episode, the Film Club goes both back in time for Lee’s epic 1992 biopic Malcolm X and back to Vietnam for the director’s recently released Da 5 Bloods, a saga of brotherhood and of treasures both true and false. We touch on many of Lee’s other films, discuss the director’s choice to eschew de-aging effects in Da 5 Bloods, and marvel at the inimitable Denzel Washington’s towering performance as Malcolm X. We also chart the surprising structural similarities between the two films, and even manage to work in some last-minute references to Dune (again!) and Floor Is Lava. As always, there’s something for everyone!

Note: This episode was recorded two months before the tragic passing of Chadwick Boseman, who owns the screen as Stormin’ Norman in Da 5 Bloods, and who left us with a transcendent body of work for which all of us who love movies owe him a tremendous debt. Let’s make sure we’re good for it.

Notes, Quotes & References:

From Movies and Meaning, by Stephen Prince:

The narrative of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1993), about the life of the charismatic black leader, is divided into three sections. The first traces his early life as a street hustler, the second his years in prison, and the third his rise in the Nation of Islam and career as a civil rights leader. Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson and production designer Wynn Thomas collaborated to create a color design that would organize the film’s sprawling narrative by treating the three narrative sections in terms of separate color schemes. 

The first section of the film, dealing with Malcolm’s life as a young man, is the most colorful, the most visually romantic, and the section that features the warmest colors. The sections dealing with Malcolm’s time in prison contrast with the warmth of the earlier episodes by utilizing a color scheme that stresses grays, blacks, and bluish grays. The lighting scheme is very cool and hard, eliminating all diffusion.

The third section of the narrative, dealing with Malcolm’s career as a civil rights leader and relationship with the Nation of Islam, utilizes a color scheme intended by the filmmakers to be normal, natural, and earthy in order to emphasize the clearheaded and enlightened portion of Malcolm’s life that this stage was meant to represent. Accordingly, the color scheme in the last third of the film features browns, greens, and very natural tones. Dickerson wanted each of these schemes to work on the viewer subliminally and to provide a way of visually characterizing the content of Malcolm’s life during these periods.

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