Death of a Prophet (1981) review- an appetizer before a full course meal

Sometimes a filmmaker puts such a definitive stamp on a historical event or figure that it can outright delete previous cinematic depictions from the public consciousness.

James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), for example, was a cultural and financial juggernaut when it was first released, so much so that it became the go-to rendering of this 1912 oceanic disaster for an entire generation of movie goers.

As a result, a lot of people my age don’t even know that half-a-dozen or so Titanic-centric feature films and TV movies came out before 1997, although a lot of these generational blind spots could be blamed on modern streaming services failing to stock up on older media.

A similar phenomenon is at work with the first 20 minutes of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), since this brutal, unflinching portrayal of the 1944 D-Day invasion turned into an aesthetic template that was adopted by countless future films, TV series, and even video games set during World War Two.

But in terms of biopics, few films are as comprehensive as Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), a three-and-a-half-hour epic that tracks the controversial civil rights leader’s life from his younger years all the way to his assassination in 1965.

Even though these birth-to-death biopics are usually exhausting experiences, Lee’s ferocious directing combined with Denzel Washington’s Oscar-caliber lead performance proved to having staying power with generations of movie-goers, so much so that this motion picture (like the previous two examples) was entered the U.S. National Film Registry decades later.

Lee’s Malcolm X is so influential that it’s easy to forget all the other times the Black empowerment icon showed up on the big and small screen prior to 1992, even with a big-time actor like Morgan Freeman taking on the role in Woodie King Jr.’s Death of a Prophet (1981).

But while this low-budget TV movie definitely has its merits, it’s easy to see how it got lost in the pop culture shuffle and eclipsed by future projects like Malcolm X.

Not only is Death of a Prophet plagued with head-scratching filmmaking decisions, but King Jr. also does a poor job of putting the events on screen in the proper context, which does a real disservice to such an important historical figure.

Instead of covering Malcolm X’s entire life, Death of a Prophet focuses on the 24 hours leading up to his demise, attempting to provide a small-scale portrait of a larger-than-life figure who knew his days were numbered.

Even though this premise is loaded with potential, the end product isn’t very compelling and comes across as an unfinished documentary that needed some additional footage.

Freeman spends a lot of his screen time wandering through the streets of New York City, where he bumps into some hippies, chats with a local bookstore owner, and is confronted by members of the FBI.

Throughout these encounters, the audience is rarely provided any real insight into Malcolm’s state of mind, with Freeman never getting the chance to flex any emotional range beyond some stern stoicism.   

Meanwhile, the film also spends a distracting amount of time following Malcolm X’s assassins as they prepare for his eventual killing at Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom.

These scenes similarly fall flat, since King Jr. is only interested in having these characters discuss the logistics of the hit and bizarrely showcase the strength of their abdominal muscles at a karate dojo.

In both parallel storylines, the director is reluctant to fill audiences in on the historical events and political intrigue that led up to this point, namely Malcolm X’s split from and growing hostility towards the Nation of Islam.

Maybe this was done to avoid ruffling any feathers in the Black community, since the true identity of Malcolm X’s killers remains a contentious topic of debate even to this day.

But whatever the reason, the choice to deprive Death of a Prophet of all these critical background details robs the story of any real weight, especially for someone who isn’t familiar with Malcolm X’s legacy ahead of time.

The film’s low production values also don’t do a great job of selling the serious story that King Jr. is trying to tell.

Not only is the audio recording of the character dialogue pretty spotty, but the prominent hand-held camera work and dingy lighting can sometimes give off the impression that you are watching a series of home movies rather than a civil rights drama.

However, this biggest production shortcoming in Death of a Prophet can be found in the make-up and hairdressing departments, since they didn’t even try to make Freeman look like his historical counterpart.

I mean, would it have been that expensive to give the star of your movie a haircut?

On the other hand, this amateurish feel does imbue the film with a kind of rough-around-the-edges charm that occasionally manifests on screen.

While the recording of character dialogue is rough, King Jr. and his team inject the project with some naturalistic sound that does a decent job of setting the mood.

This heavy ambiance is most prevalent in the middle of the film, where Freeman is accompanied by a cacophony of honking cars and chattering bystanders as he makes his way through the streets of Manhattan, his paranoia of an impending assassination growing by the second.

When it comes to non-diegetic sound, Death of a Prophet features an energetic jazz score full of woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments that similarly manage to crank up the tension.

In fact, portions of the film even reminded me of Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014), which also used an aggressive, drum-heavy score to foreshadow the main character’s impending demise.

And while King Jr.’s hand-held shooting style is a little clumsy at times, this technique gives the film a gritty, documentary-like feel that calls back to the vibrant Blaxploitation cinema of the previous decade.

This documentary-like quality extends to the film’s opening six minutes, which features interviews with people who knew Malcolm X in real life, like activist Yuri Kochiyama, poet Amiri Baraka, and actor Ossie Davis.

So even though King Jr.’s filmmaking craft and presentation of history is seriously flawed, it’s difficult to deny his passion for the main subject matter.

In retrospect, Death of a Prophet comes across as the director’s attempt to keep Malcolm X’s legacy alive 16 years following his death.

After all, his depictions in film and television up until that point (excluding an Oscar-nominated documentary from 1972) were relegated to supporting roles in bio pics featuring more mainstream civil rights heroes, like Muhammed Ali and Martin Luther King Jr.

By placing Malcolm X at the centre of his own story, one could argue that Death of a Prophet sets the stage for more comprehensive biopics down the line, with Spike Lee’s epic hitting theatres just over a decade later.

But even with the benefit of historical hindsight, Death of a Prophet still comes across as a half-baked appetizer that’s meant to tide you over for a full course meal.

Sure, you can appreciate it in the moment, but only because you know something way better will be served up shortly.



Corner store companion:

President’s Choice Puff Pastry Hors D’Oeuvres Collection (because they’re tasty enough, but can’t serve as a substitute for an actual meal)

Fun facts:

-Woodie King Jr.’s film and television projects pale in comparison to his work on stage, since he founded the New Federal Theatre in 1970 to better showcase African American playwrights. King Jr. wrote, directed, and produced dozens of plays throughout his multi-decade career, which netted him plenty of accolades (like the NAACP Image Award in 1988).

-Outside Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington, Malcolm X has been portrayed by a variety of notable actors on film, television, and the stage. This list includes: James Earl Jones (The Greatest, 1977), Al Freeman Jr. (Roots: The Next Generations, 1979), Mario Van Peebles (Ali, 2000), Nigél Thatch (Selma, 2014), and Kingsley Ben-Adir (One Night in Miami, 2020).

-The percussion-heavy score featured in Death of a Prophet was composed by drummer Max Roach, who is known for being a pioneer in the bebop style of jazz.

Death of a Prophet can currently be watched in its entirety on YouTube:

Young Winston (1972) review-a tale of two Churchills

Even though historical biopics traditionally clean house during Oscar season, this genre of film can be downright insufferable if handled incorrectly.

In the past, a lot of filmmakers have been tempted to fit the totality of a person’s life and accomplishments into a single feature-length runtime, which can result in a bloated script and laughable use of old-age make-up.


Director Richard Attenborough and screenwriter Carl Foreman attempt to sidestep these problems in Young Winston (1972) by focusing on a specific period of Winston Churchill’s life: from his childhood to his time in the military to his early years in British Parliament.

While the pair are mostly successful in crafting an accessible take on a larger-than-life figure, they do stumble a bit when it comes to the overall storytelling, which prevents this film from achieving “all-time classic” status alongside other historical epics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

Young Winston’s biggest strength and weakness lies in its narrative structure that is broken up into two distinct halves.

The first part is more of a coming-of-age story/domestic drama featuring Churchill’s academic struggles and his dysfunctional relationship with his parents.

Hour two is an all-out war movie that showcases some pretty awe-aspiring recreations of events like the Battle of Omdurman and Churchill’s involvement in the Second Boer War.

While both sections boast some tremendous performances and prestige production values, the opening 60 minutes fall a little short in terms of introducing the audience to Churchill as a character.

Don’t get me wrong, the basics are all there, with the future UK Prime Minister being framed as an unsure young boy who is trying to follow in the footsteps of his father (who was a tremendously successful politician in his own right).

Plus, his sense of alienation is really hammered home thanks to some compelling work from Robert Shaw and Anne Bancroft, who do a great job of portraying parents struggling to relate to their son.

However, the problem is that the first hour of this film dedicates far too much time to these supporting players, without giving the titular character any real time to make a big impression.

I’d estimate that at least half of the scenes in the first act of Young Winston feature Shaw and Bancroft exclusively, with the various child actors playing Churchill being shuffled off to the side.

Again, it’s not like these scenes are bad or anything (quite the opposite actually), but I did get the impression that the filmmakers tried to smuggle a backdoor biopic about Lord Randolph Churchill (the father) into a film that’s supposed to be about his son.

As a result, Young Winston feels a little bit unfocused at first, with most of the protagonist’s motivation being vocalized by other characters rather than being dictated by his own actions.

Another puzzling narrative choice introduced in the first half of this movie is the filmmakers’ use of overlapping narration, which is something I haven’t seen (or heard) since watching David Lynch’s screen version of Dune (1984).

Just like in that film, Young Winston features voice-overs from multiple different characters, who are meant to provide exposition and spout off about how great/terrible the main protagonist is.

I actually counted each time a new omniscient voice popped into the story and tallied over 10 narrators by the time the credits rolled.

Not only is this lazy storytelling, but layering the movie with so many conflicting narrators results in a really jarring movie-going experience that broke my immersion on multiple occasions.

Now, with all that bellyaching aside, Young Winston eventually finds its footing and picks up tremendously during its second half.

For one thing, Attenborough really gets to flex his talents as an action director, using dynamic camera movements and strategically placed extras to give the last formal cavalry charge in British military history its proper due.

Later on in the film, Attenborough outdoes himself in the action department by staging a truly nail biting sequence in the Second Boer War, where Churchill and his squad have to escape an ambush by pushing over a derailed train car.

But outside of all that bombastic war spectacle, Young Winston’s biggest asset in its second half is actor Simon Ward, who finally gets to take centre stage as an adult version of Churchill.


Despite the fact that this is his first leading-man role, Ward is completely comfortable in front of the camera and finds the right emotional beats to carry the audience from scene to scene.

He showcases some pretty impressive range throughout the film’s runtime as well, effortlessly transitioning from a nervous British schoolboy to an up-and-coming politician who easily captures the attention of his colleagues in Parliament.

Ward also doesn’t rely on doing a simple impression of his real-life counterpart to carry the story, which is a pitfall that a lot of actors fall into when they’re cast in a biopic.


Instead, he actually commits to playing a character, whose doubts and insecurities are eventually overshadowed by his sheer determination to make his mark in politics.

Of course, a lot of this character depth came be attributed to screenwriter Carl Foreman, who does a really great job of fleshing out all of the film’s major players.

Even though this approach leads to some clunky storytelling early on, everything eventually clicks into place once Ward gets to command the lion’s share of Foreman dialogue in the film’s second half.

That being said, I got the impression that the screenwriter was a little too enamored with his real-life subject, since there are select moments in the film that come across as fanboy wish fulfillment.

For example, Churchill easily guns down a bunch of enemy combatants in one of the first scenes of the movie, even though the character has very little field experience at this point in the story.

Moments like this could be chalked up to the fact that Foreman chose to base his screenplay on Churchill’s 1930 autobiography My Early Life; a book that is bound to contain at least a couple exaggerated retellings of real-world events.

So anyone walking into this film expecting any kind of critique about the less savory elements of the Churchill’s legacy, like his views on race and imperialism, will be sorely disappointed.

But judging it as a film, and not a historical document, Young Winston definitely succeeds more than it fails thanks to some very talented people working in front of and behind the camera.

It may not pack the same visceral punch as any war film directed by David Lean or Stanley Kubrick, but Attenborough still knows the right places to invest his time and money on screen, which would serve him well in future large-scale biopics like Gandhi (1982).

And with over 60 depictions of Churchill existing on film and television, Young Winston at least stands out on a superficial level by focusing on an period of his life outside of World War II.

The entertainment industry constantly acts like modern history only revolves around this one conflict, and any movie that breaks from that trend is a breath of the fresh air.



Corner store companion:

McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits and Tetley Earl Grey Tea (because it is the most British food and drink combination I could think of)


Fun facts:

-Release date: July 21, 1972 (UK), Oct. 10, 1972 (US)

-Box office gross: $ 4,687,000 (US)

Young Winston was nominated for three Oscars at the 1973 Academy Awards, including Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. Simon Ward also won the Most Promising Newcomer (male) award at the 1973 Golden Globes.

-Ward went on to reprise his role as Winston Churchill in the 1994 Turkish television miniseries Kurtulus.

-Malcolm McDowell was originally slated to play the lead in this film, but repeatedly declined the role.

-Outside of portraying Churchill as a young adult, Ward also provides the voice of a middle-aged Churchill who narrates large chunks of this film.

-Besides helming Gandhi (1982), Richard Attenborough directed several other high-profile biopics later in his career, including Chaplin (1992) and Grey Owl (1999).

-Surprise cameo: Sir Anthony Hopkins makes as short appearance at the end of the film as David Lloyd George, one of Churchill’s more prominent political allies who also served as the UK’s Prime Minister between 1916 and 1922.