What other director could make the biopic of the most beloved and famous African-American leader during the fight for civil rights in the United States? Spike Lee with his fiery ways was born to make this picture. The film is a cornerstone in the impressive career of the talented director. And if it was destiny for him to be the man behind the camera than the same must be said in regards to Denzel Washington playing the man himself.
Malcolm Little’s father was a minister who was killed by the Klu Klux Klan when Malcolm was just a young boy living in rural Kansas. Without his father’s direction and guidance Malcolm (Denzel Washington – Inside Man, Training Day) went on to become a hoodlum. Eventually he was arrested and jailed for his crimes.
While in jail Malcolm was introduced to the writings of Nation of Islam and Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr. – from television’s One Life to Live). Once out of jail he travels to Chicago to meet Elijah Muhammad, agrees to preach the ways of Muhammad and even changes his name to Malcolm X.
Next stop for Malcolm is a return to Harlem and the start of his life as a preacher for the Nation of Islam. Soon after he meets his future wife, Betty (Angela Bassett – Waiting to Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back). They are soon married and have four daughters. Malcolm’s preaching abilities allow him to rise fast within the Nation of Islam and he even becomes the advisor for Elijah Muhammad himself.
Due to divergent ideas about Islam, Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad grow apart. The rift becomes irreparable when a quote by Malcolm after the assassination of John F Kennedy Jr. is taken out of context. Malcolm is an at times brutally honest man and that does not win him friends in certain circles. Muhammad suspends him from the Nation of Islam for a period of 90 days.
Disillusioned, Malcolm decides now is the time to make the spiritual journey to Mecca. While in Mecca he converts to Sunni Muslim and changes his name to El-Hajj Malik Al-Shabazz. The voyage to Mecca also convinces him to stop his anti-white preachings.
Upon his return to the United States, Malcolm starts a new Islamic organization that preaches tolerance for all that follow the Qu’ran. Soon after Malcolm and his family start receiving death threats. This does not stop this man from preaching and that fearlessness eventually leads to his death.
He had to struggle to get the film made, but once he had the backing it was full steam ahead. Spike Lee’s film is uncompromising in its look at and portrayal of the controversial black leader. His vision is all he is concerned about. Nothing else matters. You gotta respect the man because he sticks to his guns and never apologizes for what he has created. Whether you agree with him or not, you have to admit that the end product is marvelous. He really is up to the task of handling the epic nature of the story of this man. From his time as a young boy to that of his assassination, all is covered. Over the course of the almost 200 minutes we are inundated with information about the man himself, United States politics and Islam.
The astounding performance by Denzel Washington brings up the level of the film. He carries the entirety of it on his shoulders. Washington was totally committed to the role. He even got the speaking tones and rhythm totally right. His supporting cast, especially Angela Bassett, is very strong, but the film belongs to Washington. Such a great performance that it is amazing to me that he did not win the Academy Award.
A must for fans of American history, black history, Islam, and filmmaking itself. Don’t let Lee’s strong vision and occasional rhetoric scare you away.
-Malcolm X, 1972 Documentary
-By Any Means Necessary: The Making of Malcolm X