Summer of ’92: Changing Identities

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Welcome back to Summer of 92, the summer series in which I take a look at the movies released in 1992, also known as the year I was born. If you want an overview of what I’ve covered so far, you can click HERE. Otherwise, keep reading. 

Do Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X have anything in common? My thinking in pairing them up as a double-feature was that, as far as I knew, both movies were concerned with fairly politically extreme main characters that change their identities and ideologies throughout the film’s running time. And that remains pretty much true. But I feel like this might have been the weakest pairing of this Summer of ’92 series. Frankly, making the pairings without having seen many of the movies, I wasn’t expecting them to turn out to be as effective as they’ve been so far. And just to be clear, when I say this is the weakest pairing yet, I’m not referring to the quality of the individual films, but the way in which they relate to one another thematically or aesthetically.

There is one clear connection between The Crying Game and Malcolm X that doesn’t really have to do with the films themselves, and it’s that they were two of the most talked-about movies of 1992. The production of Malcolm X had been followed very closely by the entertainment press. Originally, Warner Bros’ biographical movie of the civil rights activist was going to be directed by Academy Award-winning Barry Levinson. That was until notorious provocateur Spike Lee won the job for himself by complaining to the press about how an african american director should be the one to make the Malcolm X movie. There was a lot of expectation surrounding the movie’s release, and even more press coverage when Lee made comments suggesting children should skip school in order to go watch his movie. The fact that Malcolm X was neither the second coming of Christ, nor a complete disaster made its release feel a little anticlimactic, with critics giving it mostly positive reviews, but pointing out that it was a pretty straightforward movie.

The Crying Game, on the other hand, was an independent British movie, whose production wasn’t really covered by any newspaper, but it had the good luck of being one of the first movies to be released by Miramax, which meant that it had the merciless publicity machine of Harvey Weinstein behind it. The Crying Game famously features a surprising twist towards the middle of its running time. One that was particularly daring for 1992, I might add, and one that certainly facilitated Weinstein’s ability to build buzz around the movie, making it into a sleeper hit, and scoring six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture (it ended up winning one Oscar, for Original Screenplay). Writer/director Neil Jordan had a critical hit with his 1987 movie Mona Lisa, but the success of The Crying Game was unprecedented. Suddenly, all of Hollywood was talking about his movie.

The Crying Game starts when a British soldier named Jody (Forest Whitaker) is kidnapped by a group of Irish terrorists. One of these terrorists is Fergus (Stephen Rea), the movie’s protagonist, who is a more sensible man than the other terrorists, and slowly establishes an emotional bond with Jody. However, despite this premise, The Crying Game isn’t really a very political movie. The bonding between Fergus and Jody only occupies the first third of the movie, the rest takes place months later, when Fergus has relocated to London and works as a construction worker under the name “Jimmy”. It is then, that Fergus looks for and falls in love with Dil (Jaye Davidson), who was once the closest thing Jody had to a wife. Like I said, the movie isn’t really interested in having any strong political message. It’s a much smaller story, focusing on a man who tries to escape from his past by finding love in the arms of another man’s woman. If The Crying Game sounds like the premise of a film noir, it’s because it is clearly inspired by the genre.

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Stephen Rea and Forest Whitaker in ‘The Crying Game’

Like many film noir, The Crying Game focuses on the relationship between the hero and the femme fatale, which your enjoyment of the movie will depend a lot on how you feel about the characters and the actor’s performances. I, personally, didn’t really connect with the movie. I am not ready to dismiss it just yet, if only because so many people whose opinion I respect seem to like it. The truth is that the film’s plot, which is the element that was most constantly praised in the reviews that came out at the time of the movie’s release, felt very familiar and uneventful to me. Stephen Rea, in the lead role, seemed to me too anonymous and distant. I couldn’t put myself on whatever plane it is that Fergus operates in, and thus, I was unable to read what Rea is trying to convey in his performance. Jaye Davidson’s work as Dil, on the other hand, is much more relatable, but is undermined when the character turns into a frenetically jealous girlfriend in the last part of the movie. And as far as the ending is concerned, I see what Jordan was trying to do, but my lack of connection with the central couple resulted in an ambivalent reaction to what is supposed to be a very emotional gesture.

I will, however, say this about The Crying Game: despite what the movie’s reputation might have made you believe, the twist is not really the best part about it. It is only a clever bonus element in a story that doesn’t really pay much attention to it, except in as much as it reveals certain things about the level to which Fergus is willing to commit to his new life. If you haven’t watched The Crying Game because you know the ending, I would like to tell you that said knowledge won’t really affect your enjoyment of the movie. I am certainly not sure to which level I would recommend the movie, but it is certainly a decent thriller, and it is a movie that seems to be pretty well liked by most people, so what do I know. I didn’t really fall for it, but you might enjoy it.

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Jaye Davidson as Dil in ‘The Crying Game’

Now let us talk about Malcolm X, which is, unsurprisingly coming from Spike Lee and being based on a highly controversial civil rights leader, a very political movie. There is no denying that Lee felt some sort of passionate commitment to making this movie. I mean, it’s easy to fell how he wanted to make the movie about Malcolm X feel as epic and important as the effect his life had on the fight for racial equality in the United States. As a matter of fact, in the last five minutes the movie transitions into a documentary-style aesthetic where narration, a photographic montage, and a final scene connecting Malcolm X’s legacy to Nelson Mandela serve to end the three-hour-plus movie with what is an overwhelmingly emotional call to arms. The ending’s purpose seems to be tied more closely to Lee’s own political agenda than to the tone of the movie that came before. This is not to say that it doesn’t work, or that the movie is weaker for featuring it. On the contrary, the break in format gives the movie a vitality that is, like I said above, overwhelming. It has already done its job, but it wants to take it one step further, because the message that is carrying doesn’t deserve a whisper, it deserves a battle cry. Truth be told the Mandela connection might have gone a little too far for my taste, but there is no denying that there is impact to this movie.

The thing about Malcolm X’s ending is that it is blunt, while the movie that preceded it is far more humanistic than political. It might be just my personal reaction to the movie, but the greatest thing about Malcolm X is how it doesn’t treat its subject as a hero, or a bigger-than-life personality, but as a human being. He is certainly more charismatic and powerful than most people you’ll meet in your daily life, but Denzel Washington’s brilliant performance paints Malcolm not as some sort of political virtuoso, but as a product of his time and his place. He isn’t born Malcolm X, he becomes Malcolm X, and what is even more important, he doesn’t stop evolving as a character until the very end of the movie.

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Denzel Washington as Malcolm X giving a press conference.

The story-line of Malcolm X’s life could be easily thought as that of a young hustler who is imprisoned, is introduced to the teachings of the Nation of Islam, and emerges as an incredibly powerful political figure. But the greatest thing about Malcolm X is not that he was able to move thousands of people or give fantastic speeches, but the fact that he was willing to learn, change and evolve. One of the most pivotal moments in the movie revolves around Malcolm giving a press conference in which he will admit that he has changed his mind on many of the thoughts that he vehemently advocated for in earlier years. In that sense, I find Malcolm X to be an essential film not only in as far as it allows us to witness the power and influence of one of the most important African American figures of the 20th Century (which is more than enough of a cause for a movie to exist), but because it shows us how humanity and intelligence should always prevail in the face of passion.

Throughout the movie, Malcolm refuses accusations that he is advocating for racial violence saying that, to him, black people buying arms for self-protection does not reflect violence, but intelligence. By being structured and leading to certain moments, Malcolm X the movie shows the intelligence of which Malcolm X talked about, and makes the best possible example out of the man. At the time of its release, many critics complaint about how, after all of the fuzz Spike Lee made about wanting to direct the movie, Malcolm X felt too much like a typical biopic. I would say that those people are wrong. Malcolm X shows a level of power and urgency that very few biopics seems to have. It wants to be as large as possible, it is transfixed by its subject, it wants to blow up delivering its message. I know that it makes for terrible criticism, but I can’t put into words or point to any particular moment in the movie to support this claim. It is all between the lines. You don’t know how the power is delivered, you only feel it.

Next Double-Feature: Lorenzo’s Oil and Passion Fish 

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