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TV REVIEWS : PBS' 'Malcolm X' a Complex Picture

January 26, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER

When Spike Lee unveiled "Malcolm X," he said that he expected the critics to lambaste him for deifying the black leader. What he didn't expect were the loud voices of those who condemned his film for the unflattering sequences of Malcolm's early street and criminal life, and its depiction of his battle with the religious order that had probably saved his life--the Nation of Islam. That this same order was linked with his assassination only helped make Lee's film a richly ironic film biography.

Documentarian Orlando Bagwell must be anticipating some of the same knocks for his new work for "The American Experience," "Malcolm X: Make It Plain" (tonight at 8 on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15; 7 p.m. on KVCR-TV Channel 24).

On the other hand, with the heat about Malcolm that had been ignited by Lee's film now dissipated, Bagwell's even more honest 2 1/2-hour account of an astoundingly complex life may be taken for what it is: a fairly definitive film record of the first post-war voice of black radicalism.

This is a product through and through of the Blackside film group, which gave us, among other works, "Eyes on the Prize" and "The Great Depression." The camera peers deeply into the faces of those who knew Malcolm, and we become aware that all of these people--his brothers and sisters, his old Harlem buddies, his Muslim friends and rivals, and artists such as actor Ossie Davis and filmmaker-photographer Gordon Parks--knew sides of him, but not the whole.

Taken together with the artfully inserted archival footage, Bagwell's film brings together the entire, prismatic complex of Malcolm's identity while it eschews Lee's Hollywoodized sentimentality.

Bagwell's inclusion of Malcolm's TV face-offs with white interviewers, news camera crews and Martin Luther King Jr. allies such as Kenneth Clarke makes for both great documentary reporting and potent images of Malcolm's gutsy desire to debate anyone, anywhere. (He even debates at Oxford, doing a line analysis of Hamlet's "to be or not to be" speech.)

Bagwell, the filmmaker, clearly revels in the irony that Malcolm, the denouncer of "the white devil" and consummate reverse-racist, enjoyed the white man's media. It wasn't only that Malcolm was a powerful black nationalist who refused to join King's nonviolent movement; it was that he was a telegenic black nationalist. This is another, important side of the Malcolm prism.

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