I don’t want to bore people with my “I am not a contrarian” speech again, but it’s worth saying that my weird politics are the honest expression of what I sincerely believe. (I actually usually think what I believe should be obvious to others and I’m consistently surprised when so many people disagree.) But the issue where I have the most superficially contrarian opinions is movies, particularly in terms of my impression of the relative value of certain films by the same filmmaker. Again and again, I think a film generally considered to be inferior is actually better than a film generally considered to be superior. But as with politics, this never feels contrarian or provocative to me. It just feels natural, right, obvious. Here’s some pairs of films by the same filmmakers where I don’t agree with the conventional wisdom. The films that I consider worse than the ones I’m highlighting here aren’t necessarily considered a given filmmaker’s best, just better than my own preferred movies.
Malcolm X > Do the Right Thing
I get it, I really do. Do the Right Thing has the kind of verve and energy that could only be produced by a very young filmmaker who didn’t yet know what he couldn’t do. It’s a testament to Spike Lee’s outrageous precocity and confidence in his own vision, a depiction of urban life that’s both very specific to New York in the 1980s and somehow timeless. The performances are a little uneven, but their heights are very high indeed. The whole movie is an audacious display of talent and an uncompromisingly political point of view that is nevertheless thoroughly humanist. As celebrated as Do the Right Thing was at the time, looking back it almost feels like it should have been an even bigger deal; the movie is so obviously a major talent announcing himself with an ambitious and particular vision.
But it’s no Malcolm X. I find Lee a maddeningly inconsistent director, not just from movie to movie but within individual movies. (There was a period in Miracle at St. Anna where I thought it was shaping up to be a truly great movie, and then… yeah, no.) And I think Do the Right Thing shows some signs of that, moments that appear stagey and lack a coherent purpose. Malcolm X, in contrast, is an impeccably-controlled movie, a work of assured mastery that never drags despite lasting almost three and a half hours. If Do the Right Thing is a record of the power of precocity, Malcolm X is a testament to the benefits of experience. The film shows how Lee had grown to be a more polished, more seasoned director, and it’s to the benefit of the film. There’s hardly a false note in the whole thing. Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett give towering and delicate performances, and Lee gives them all the room they need to shine. Near the middle of the movie there’s a scene between Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, where she shares her growing fear and unhappiness about the NOI, that’s just a powerhouse from beginning to end. Lee lets the camera roll. Another director might have gotten the main plot points out of the way and cut to another scene, especially with a movie that’s so long. But Lee’s decision to let the scene stretch out is a brilliant one and showcases the relationship at the movie’s heart in an achingly moving way. It’s a rare beast, this film, in that it’s a sharp and moving biopic that avoids cliche. And I think it’s much better than Do the Right Thing.