Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Malcolm Xperimental: "Death of a Prophet" (1981)

Morgan Freeman portraying Malcolm X should have been a sure thing, but his very good performance is swallowed up in this awkwardly staged experimental film.

On the surface, and the myriad DVD covers (this film is in the public domain and subject to a ton of releases), this hour long drama chronicles the last day in the life of Malcolm X before he was gunned down in New York City during a speech. However, writer/director Woodie King, Jr. throws in many anachronisms, turning this into a strange drama. Freeman wanders around 1965 Harlem, but encounters both hippies, and discusses the deaths of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. The automobiles in the film are obviously contemporary to when this was made. Malcolm X goes about his mundane errands, and the camera follows, making this hour-long film seem longer.

Freeman looks wrong in the role (he looks more like Cornel West than anyone), but he brings a nice gravity to the film. We don't get to hear his distinctive voice until almost a quarter of the way into the story, but Ossie Davis and Amiri Baraka are present to talk about the day Malcolm X was shot, and its effect on the black community.

Technically, the editing is sloppy, the sets are cheap, and characters are introduced without any backing information (the assassination conspirators are given almost as much screen time as Freeman). Yolanda King, daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., plays Betty Shabazz pretty well. It's unsettling to have scenes concerning a firebombing of the couple's home, and the way Betty Shabazz died decades later.

As a stand-alone film, "Death of a Prophet" is an interesting failure. (* *) out of five stars.