Lee has the audacity to bookend the film with the tragic footage of the Rodney King beating (an incendiary choice which immediately signaled that the movie would be as much about the present as the past) and with the hopeful coda of Nelson Mandela himself addressing a classroom of black schoolchildren in Malcolm’s own words.
In between is one of the most expansive and illuminating portraits of an incredible life story ever committed to the screen.
Lee does not shy away from Malcolm’s years as a self-absorbed, zoot suit wearing thug. He gets his hair processed, dates white women and is an eager participant in Harlem’s criminal underworld. He eventually winds up in prison, where he comes under the influence of a fellow inmate who is a member of the burgeoning Nation of Islam.
What follows is Malcolm’s emotional journey from uneducated hood to the supremely gifted spokesman for Elijah Muhammad and the black Muslim movement. Deep at the heart of this compelling narrative is Denzel Washington’s unforgettable performance, still arguably the greatest of his career and routinely ranked among the best screen performances ever given by an actor.
“Washington’s revelatory performance shows us his indomitable resolve as if from the inside out. He captures Malcolm’s electrifying sense of articulation and control, the way he was able to purge his presence of all self-doubt,” wrote Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman.
And Washington is just one piece of a sterling cast. Angela Bassett (as Malcolm’s wife Betty Shabazz, who served as consultant on the film), Delroy Lindo, the late Al Freeman Jr., and even Spike Lee himself all contribute strong work in supporting roles.
The movie and Washington’s performance achieve their greatest pathos in the last act. Malcolm has come full circle, broken with the Nation and its compromised leader, and is seemingly resigned to his fate as a martyr.
Although Lee’s signature camera move — having an actor ride on a dolly static, while action takes place around him — later became something of a self parody, it’s used to great effect here, as Malcolm makes his sojourn to the Audubon Ballroom, where he would be viciously slain.
The moment, scored with Sam Cooke’s impeccable vocals from “A Change Is Gonna Come,” is one of Lee’s most powerful cinematic moments.
While the film was snubbed for best picture, Washington won numerous awards for his sterling portrayal of the titular hero but lost to an overdue Al Pacino in the Best Actor category at the Oscars. His later victory for Training Day was largely viewed as a consolation prize for his failure to win for Malcolm X.
The movie’s commercial and critical success also coincided with a period of social consciousness in hip-hop, which reached its peak in the late 80s and early 90s, as well as a marketing bonanza — baseball hats featuring ‘X’ were ubiquitous among urban youths at the time.
The film is certainly not without its detractors. There are those who feel is hewed too closely to Alex Haley’s autobiography of the civil rights leader. Others believe the movie spent far too much time dwelling on Malcolm’s criminal exploits as a youth.
Yet for a younger generation of Americans, regardless of race, Spike Lee’s film cemented Malcolm X’s status as an influential cultural icon.
In 2010, the film, which Rev. Al Sharpton called “black art at its best,” was inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically” and “aesthetically” significant.
Malcolm’s own daughter Ilyasah Shabazz probably put it best: “There’s something there with which we can all identify, and I think that really the beauty of my father’s life and Spike’s film.”