If a feel-good docudrama about the life of a decidedly not PC civil-rights leader is what audiences were hoping for when seeing Malcolm X for the very first time, director/co-writer Spike Lee immediately made it clear that this was not the film for them. The first thing we see onscreen as the film begins is the American flag slowly becoming engulfed in flames and forming the letter X, which is intercut with the familiar footage of Rodney King being viciously beaten by officers of the L.A.P.D in May of 1991. And as we’re looking at these images,we hear Denzel Washington as Malcolm X giving a speech as he charges the white man for his numerous crimes and offenses against Black people over the past 400 years.
Malcolm X opened in theaters on November 18, 1992, twenty months after Rodney King was attacked, and six months after the Los Angeles riots that occurred largely (but not entirely) as a result of all four officers being acquitted by a jury. But before audiences got to see the film for themselves, Spike had to overcome many obstacles in order for the film to be made. He had to convince Warner Bros. that he was the best choice for directing an adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and not their original choice, Norman Jewison, whose involvement could have resulted in a backlash that would be even greater than what the studio had experienced back when they hired Steven Spielberg to direct The Color Purple.
Lee also had to convince Warner Bros. that the story he was telling could not be done in a two-hour-and-fifteen-minute-long film with a $20 million budget (which was what they wanted) and needed a longer runtime and more money, just like Oliver Stone’s JFK. And he had to speak with Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam who made it very clear that, under no circumstances was he to be portrayed negatively in the film in any way that would make audiences think he was involved in the assassination of Malcolm X. Or else.
In his book with Ralph Wiley, By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations Of The Making Of Malcolm X, Spike explained why it was important that no half-measures would be taken when it came to this film, and why he was the only man for the job:
Everything I’ve learned up until now made me feel able, ready to do what needed to be done. Malcolm X. Big in scope. Big in scale. Blow it up to 70 millimeters, put it on a thousand plus screens…This story had to be more. Much more. I knew it had to be done by an African-American director, and not just any African-American director, either, but one to whom the life of Malcolm spoke very directly. And Malcolm had always been my man.
Lee also had no interest in making a film about Malcolm X that would have Malcolm becoming a supporting character in his own story — his white allies getting all of the attention just because movie studios didn’t (and still don’t) believe that films with Black subject matter hold appeal for white moviegoers. But if there’s any director who is familiar with putting in work and not caring about the white gaze, it is Spike Lee. His talents as a writer and director made his films impossible to ignore when it came to how they highlight Black people — their stories and the struggles they face in the worlds that they live in. All of which made him the ideal choice for directing Malcolm X.
Malcolm X shows us the crucial moments that made Malcolm X the man that he became. From experiencing the murder of his father at the hands of Klansmen to his time in prison, his discovery of and eventual separation from The Nation Of Islam, and the vividly captured scene at the Audobon Ballroom in Harlem, New York when Malcolm was assassinated by radical members of the Nation Of Islam in February of 1965.
Throughout, we get to see and understand all sides of Malcolm and who he truly was. Malcolm Little, the slick-talking, zoot-suited hustler who loves having a white woman on his arm, money in his pocket, and a reputation that keeps others in check. Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam spokesman who made it clear with every speech and every interview that Black pride and Black power were of greater importance to him than white people’s feelings. El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, the human rights activist who became more open to integration between Black people and white people, but remained passionate and outspoken about wanting to uplift his people. And all of it was flawlessly brought to life onscreen by Denzel Washington. It still remains one of the most masterful works of his entire career, with Washington using the charisma, intelligence, and ferocity in his arsenal to show us all what he was truly capable of as an actor. But despite Washington receiving an Academy Awards nomination for Best Actor, he ended up losing to Al Pacino for his performance in Scent Of A Woman, an infuriating slight that still lingers to fans of the actor and the film.
Malcolm X was released in theaters during a decade when Afrocentrism became much more visible and present in art and entertainment. This included books that were written by Black authors, as well as films and television shows with largely Black casts that were made by Black writers and directors eager to get through the door that Spike Lee and his fellow Black filmmakers had kicked open in previous years, helping to create a space where they could tell the stories that needed and deserved to be told.
When Lee needed additional money to complete production on Malcolm X, money that neither Warner Bros. nor the bond company they were working with were willing to provide, Lee’s impact paid dividends, with the writer/director turning to several Black celebrities (Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Prince, Janet Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, Tracy Chapman, and even Bill Cosby before his conviction for sexual assault) for financial assistance so that the film would be completed without sacrificing quality. This made it possible for Lee to finish what he started, and to do his part in living up to the words that Ossie Davis said in his eulogy for Malcolm X: “…if you knew [Malcolm X], you would know why we must honor him. Malcolm was our manhood, our living Black manhood. This was his meaning to his people, and in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves.”
Malcolm X was never someone who concerned himself with the feelings and concerns of white people when it came to speaking up on behalf of Black people and fighting for their rights. So it was only right that his story was told by Spike Lee, who has always been someone who takes that same approach when it comes to his art. Unlike most biopics, Malcolm X doesn’t shy away from who the subject of the film really was. Lee knows how important it is to give just as much attention to Malcolm’s vices as well as his virtues. (It does the same regarding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his marital infidelities, and he’s not even a character in the film.) More importantly, Malcolm X doesn’t make the same mistake that a lot of Black entertainment has been accused of making in recent years: it doesn’t spend its runtime educating white people in the audience about Black culture and its importance. Instead, it’s a story that simply is Black culture, one that refuses to hold your hand and explain Blackness in a simplified manner as if it needs to be understood by all.
There is a reason why more people are willing to quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when discussing issues of race as opposed to Malcolm X. And it’s mainly because Dr. King and his philosophy of “I have a dream that one day, my four children will be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” is seen as being more comforting and welcoming than Malcolm X’s philosophy of “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress is healing the wound that the blow made.”
Whether it’s about the man or the film that is about him, you can love or hate what is being said by (and about) Malcolm X, but it can’t, won’t, and shouldn’t be ignored. Or watered down.