Regardless of the storyline, cinematic biographies like ''Chaplin'' and ''Malcolm X'' are judged first on looks alone

By Giselle Benatar
Updated November 20, 1992 at 05:00 AM EST
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Hollywood often has a hard time staying within hailing distance of the facts of history. But when filmmakers attempt to re-create the appearance of instantly recognizable public figures of the recent past, as two of this season’s most ambitious productions do, they set themselves an almost impossible challenge. Here’s how the casts and crews of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin tried to make their cinematic heros look like the originals.


”With extreme personalities like Malcolm X you have to go all the way visually,” says X’s makeup artist, Marietta A. Carter. ”Malcolm was very intense, very deep, very spiritual. He had an incredible discipline, which was reflected in the way he looked.” To capture that look, cosmetic and wardrobe researchers first scoured photos files at archives ranging from Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to the Massachusetts Department for Corrections, where Malcolm Little was incarcerated for burglary from 1946 to 1952. Activists From the Nation of Islam who had marched with the assassinated leader helped fill in the gaps.

To duplicate Malcolm X’s sandy-brown hair, star Denzel Washington endured a seven-stage dye job. The complicated process produced some awkward hair moments. ”Denzel’s hair got stuck in a red stage, and it took a lot of work to get it out,” Carter says. ”In a couple of scenes in prison,” says Washington, ”I’ve got this hat on because my hair had fallen out from too much chemical abuse. I wouldn’t want to go through that again.” Malcolm X’s distinctive mustache and beard, made from handwoven prosthetic pieces fitted to Washington’s face, were used to add squareness to the actor’s jaw; Washington also chiseled down his features by fasting. ”He did it to give his face that slightly sunken look,” says Carter.

”All the trappings helped,” says Washington, but certain physical traits couldn’t be reproduced. Skin color was the one stumbling block, since Washington is several shades darker than Malcolm was. ”You don’t try to lighten black skin on screen. Not if you’re smart,” says Carter. ”We just went with what we had.” The Muslim leader’s distinctive cleft is also noticeably missing from Washington’s chin. ”We couldn’t put it into Denzel’s short of surgery,” says Carter.

Costume designer Ruth Carter (no relation) helped complete the picture by reconstructing signature elements of Malcolm’s wardrobe. His trademark ring — a ruby-red stone with a star and a crescent — was made by the same artisan who manufactured the original. His spectacles were also faithfully reassembled, piece by piece, down to the manufacturer’s symbol, a shape like a gold boomerang, in the corners. ”I had one assistant on that job full-time,” Ruth Carter says.

Equal care was lavished on visuals for Miki Howard who performs ”I Cover the Waterfront” as Billie Holiday in a Manhattan nightclub scene. Howard, herself a jazz singer, and Ruth Carter were particularly painstaking about Holiday’s glamorous performing outfit. Long fingerless gloves were the key element. ”Billie had a drug problem at certain periods of her career, and she would cover up the scars,” says Howard. There was also a story behind Lady Day’s trademark gardenia. ”She wore it because she burned her hair trying to straighten it and she wanted to cover it up,” says Howard. ”Everything about her stood for something.”


  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • Richard Attenborough