ⓘ Malcolm X (1992 film)

Malcolm X (1992 film)

ⓘ Malcolm X (1992 film)

Malcolm X, sometimes stylized as X, is a 1992 American epic biographical drama film about the African-American activist Malcolm X. Directed and co-written by Spike Lee, the film stars Denzel Washington in the title role, as well as Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman Jr., and Delroy Lindo. Lee has a supporting role, while Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and future South Africa president Nelson Mandela make cameo appearances. This is the second of four film collaborations between Washington and Lee.

The film dramatizes key events in Malcolm Xs life: his criminal career, his incarceration, his conversion to Islam, his ministry as a member of the Nation of Islam and his later falling out with the organization, his marriage to Betty X, his pilgrimage to Mecca and reevaluation of his views concerning whites, and his assassination on February 21, 1965. Defining childhood incidents, including his fathers death, his mothers mental illness, and his experiences with racism are dramatized in flashbacks.

Malcolm Xs screenplay, co-credited to Lee and Arnold Perl, is based largely on Alex Haleys 1965 book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Haley collaborated with Malcolm X on the book beginning in 1963 and completed it after Malcolm Xs death.

Malcolm X was distributed by Warner Bros. and released on November 18, 1992. Denzel Washington won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. In 2010, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


1. Plot

Malcolm Little is born into a poor household in rural Nebraska to a Caribbean mother and African-American father. When Malcolm is a young boy, their house is burnt down and his father, an activist for black rights, is killed by a chapter of the Black Legion. His death is falsely registered as a suicide and the family receives no compensation. Malcolms mothers mental state deteriorates and she is admitted to a mental institution. Malcolm and his siblings are put into protective care. Malcolm performs well in school and dreams of being a lawyer, but is discriminated against by his teachers.

In 1944, Malcolm, now a teenager, lives in Boston. He goes to a nightclub with his friend Shorty and girlfriend Laura. He catches the attention of the white Sophia, and the two begin to date. Malcolm gets a job as railroad worker and travels to Harlem with Sophia. At a bar, he meets "West Indian" Archie, a gangster who runs a local numbers game. The two become friends and start co-operating an illegal numbers racket. One night at a club, Malcolm bets on a series of numbers, one of which is a winner; however Archie disputes that Malcolm had selected the winning number, denying him a large sum of money. A conflict ensues between the two and Malcolm returns to Boston after an attempt on his life. Malcolm reconnects with Shorty and meets Rudy and another girl named Peg. The four delinquents decide to start performing robberies to earn some money.

By 1946, the group has accrued a large amount of money from thievery. However, they are later arrested. The two girls are sentenced to two years as first offenders in connection with the robberies, while Shorty and Malcolm are sentenced to 8-10 years in jail. While incarcerated, Malcolm meets Baines, a member of the Nation of Islam, who directs him to the teachings of the groups leader Elijah Muhammad. He is initially cold towards the preachings, but later grows interested in the Muslim religion and lifestyle that is promoted by the group. Malcolm begins to resent white people for their maltreatment of his race. Malcolm is paroled from prison in 1952 after serving six years, and travels to the Nation of Islams headquarters in Chicago. There, he meets Muhammad, who instructs Malcolm to remove his "Little" surname and replace it with "X", which is symbolic of his lost African surname that was taken from him by white people; he is rechristened as "Malcolm X".

Malcolm returns to Harlem and begins to preach the Nations message. Over time, his speeches gather large crowds of onlookers who protest African-American mistreatment. Malcolm proposes ideas such as African-American separation from white Americans. In 1958, Malcolm meets nurse Betty Sanders. The two begin dating, quickly marry and become the parents of four daughters. Several years later, Malcolm is now in a high position as the spokesperson of the Nation of Islam.

After US President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in November 1963, Malcolm comments that his assassination was the product of the white violence that has been prevalent in America since its founding: he compares the killing to "the chickens coming home to roost." This statement greatly damages Malcolms reputation and he is informed by Muhammad that he is being suspended as the Nations figurehead for 90 days. Seeing this as a betrayal, Malcolm loses faith in the organization. In early 1964, Malcolm goes on a pilgrimage to Mecca where he finds that Muslims come from all cultures, including white. Malcolm publicly announces that he will no longer preach African-American separation and begins his own organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which teaches tolerance instead of protest. He also legally changes his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. This action publicly exiles him from the Nation of Islam. He is subsequently sent several death threats by members of the Nation and his house is firebombed in early 1965.

On February 21, 1965, Malcolm prepares to speak before a crowd at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem before he is shot several times by disciples of the Nation of Islam. One of the shooters, Thomas Hagan, is shot in the leg by one of Malcolms bodyguards and dragged into a furious crowd, who proceed to beat him. Malcolm is transported to a hospital, but he is pronounced dead on arrival.

The film concludes with a series of clips showing the aftermath of Malcolms death. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers a eulogy to Malcolm, and Ossie Davis recites a speech at Malcolms funeral. Nelson Mandela delivers a speech to a school, quoting an excerpt from one of Malcolms speeches.


2.1. Cast Main cast

  • Al Freeman, Jr. as Elijah Muhammad. The charismatic leader of the Nation of Islam. Muhammads role is partially combined with that of then-current Louis Farrakhan, whose role in the script was cut after he directly threatened Lee.
  • Delroy Lindo as West Indian Archie. A Harlem gangster and who runs a local numbers game and takes a young Malcolm under his wing. Lee had originally written the role with his longtime collaborator Samuel L. Jackson in mind.
  • Angela Bassett as Betty Shabazz. A nurse and NOI activist who later marries Malcolm. The real Betty Shabazz served as an advisor to the production.
  • Albert Hall as Baines, the convict who mentors Malcolm and converts him to Islam. He is fictionalized composite of several real-world individuals.
  • Spike Lee as Shorty. Malcolms close friend from childhood who follows him into crime, the two drift apart after they are incarcerated, but later reunite through Malcolms activism. He is based on several real acquaintances of Malcolm, primarily Malcolm" Shorty” Jarvis.
  • Denzel Washington as Malcolm X previously Malcolm Little. The protagonist and titular character, a former petty criminal and convict who undergoes a spiritual transformation while incarcerated, joining the Nation of Islam and quickly rising through its ranks as a minister and activist for African-Americans. Washington had previously played the role in an off-Broadway play entitled When the Chicken Come Home to Roost, and was director Spike Lees first and only choice.
  • Theresa Randle as Laura. A young woman whom Malcolm had a strained romantic relationship with, and later passes over in favor of Sophia. She is last seen after his release, walking the streets as a prostitute.
  • Kate Vernon as Sophia. A young Caucasian woman whom Malcolm meets at a Boston nightclub and who quickly becomes his lover and partner-in-crime. She is caught alongside him for their crimes, and sentenced to two years in prison, later marrying a white man and becoming a housewife.

2.2. Cast Supporting cast

Political activists Bobby Seale and Al Sharpton make cameo appearances as a pair of street preachers. Civil rights attorney William Kunstler appears as the judge who sentences Malcolm and Shorty to prison. Future South African President Nelson Mandela appears as a Soweto school teacher delivering a lecture on X. Spike Lee regular Nicholas Turturro has a minor role as a Boston police officer. Michael Imperioli has a brief appearance as a news reporter. Film director John Sayles appears as an FBI agent surveilling Malcolm. Washingtons son 8-year old John David Washington appears as a Harlem elementary school student.

Ossie Davis provides voiceover narration over the films closing sequence, reading the eulogy he had originally performed at the real Malcolms funeral.


3. Production

Producer Marvin Worth acquired the rights to The Autobiography of Malcolm X in 1967. Worth had met Malcolm X, then called "Detroit Red," as a teenager selling drugs in New York City. Worth was fifteen at the time, and spending time around jazz clubs in the area. As Worth remembers: "He was selling grass. He was sixteen or seventeen but looked older. He was very witty, a funny guy, and he had this extraordinary charisma. A great dancer and a great dresser. He was very good-looking, very, very tall. Girls always noticed him. He was quite a special guy."

Early on, the production had difficulties telling the entire story, in part due to unresolved questions surrounding Malcolm Xs assassination. In 1971, Worth made a well-received documentary, Malcolm X, which received an Academy Award nomination in that category. The project remained unrealized. However, several major entertainers were attached to it at various times, including Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and director Sidney Lumet.


3.1. Production Screenplay

In 1968, Worth commissioned a screenplay from novelist James Baldwin, who was later joined by Arnold Perl, a screenwriter who had been a victim of McCarthy-era blacklisting. However, the screenplay took longer to develop than anticipated. Perl died in 1971.

Baldwin developed his work on the screenplay into the 1972 book One Day, When I Was Lost: A Scenario Based on Alex Haleys The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In 1976, Baldwin wrote of his experience, "I think that I would rather be horsewhipped, or incarcerated in the forthright bedlam of Bellevue, than repeat the adventure". Baldwin died in 1987. Several authors attempted drafts, including David Mamet, David Bradley, Charles Fuller and Calder Willingham. Once Spike Lee took over as director, he rewrote the Baldwin-Perl script. Due to the revisions, the Baldwin family asked the producer to take his name off the credits. Thus Malcolm X only credits Perl and Lee as the writers and Malcolm X and Alex Haley as the authors of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.


3.2. Production Production difficulties

The production was considered controversial long before filming began. The crux of the controversy was Malcolm Xs denunciation of whites before he undertook his hajj. He was, arguably, not well regarded among white citizens by and large; however, he had risen to become a hero in the African-American community and a symbol of blacks struggles, particularly during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. In the three years before the movies release, sales of The Autobiography of Malcolm X had increased 300 percent, and four of his books saw a nine-fold increase in sales between 1986 and 1991.

Once Warner Bros. agreed to the project, they initially wanted Academy Award-nominated Canadian film director Norman Jewison to direct the film. Jewison, director of the seminal civil rights film In the Heat of the Night, was able to bring Denzel Washington into the project to play Malcolm X. Jewison and Washington previously worked together in the 1984 film A Soldiers Story. A protest erupted over the fact that a white director was slated to make the film. Spike Lee was one of the main voices of criticism; since college, he had considered a film adaption of The Autobiography of Malcolm X to be a dream project. Lee and others felt that it was appropriate that only a black person should direct Malcolm X.

After the public outcry against Jewison, Worth came to the conclusion that "it needed a black director at this point. It was insurmountable the other way.Theres a grave responsibility here." Jewison left the project, though he noted he gave up the movie not because of the protest, but because he could not reconcile Malcolms private and public lives and was unsatisfied with Charles Fullers script. Lee confirmed Jewisons position, stating, "If Norman actually thought he could do it, he would have really fought me. But he bowed out gracefully." Jewison and Denzel Washington would reunite several years later for The Hurricane, in which Washington played imprisoned boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, who spent nearly twenty years in prison for a murder he claimed he did not commit before his conviction was overturned in 1985.

Spike Lee was soon named the director, and he made substantial changes to the script. "Im directing this movie and I rewrote the script, and Im an artist and theres just no two ways around it: this film about Malcolm X is going to be my vision of Malcolm X. But its not like Im sitting atop a mountain saying, Screw everyone, this is the Malcolm I see. Ive done the research, Ive talked to the people who were there."


3.3. Production Concerns over Lees portrayal of Malcolm X

Soon after Spike Lee was announced as the director and before its release, Malcolm X received criticism by black nationalists and members of the United Front to Preserve the Legacy of Malcolm X, headed by poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, who were worried about how Lee would portray Malcolm X. One protest in Harlem drew over 200 people. Some based their opinion on dislike of Lees previous films; others were concerned that he would focus on Malcolm Xs life before he converted to Islam. Baraka bluntly accused Spike Lee of being a "Buppie", stating "We will not let Malcolm Xs life be trashed to make middle-class Negroes sleep easier", compelling others to write the director and warn him "not to mess up Malcolms life." Some, including Lee himself, noted the irony that many of the arguments they made against him mirrored those made against Norman Jewison.

Looking back on the experience of making the film and the pressure he faced to produce an accurate film, Lee jokingly stated on the DVDs audio commentary that when the film was released, he and Denzel Washington had their passports handy in case they needed to flee the country.


3.4. Production Concerns over Washingtons portrayal of Malcolm X

Washington agreed to play Malcolm X while Norman Jewison was scheduled to direct the film. Still, Lee stated he never envisioned any actor other than Washington in the role. Lee, who had worked with Washington on Mo Better Blues 1990, cited Washingtons performance as Malcolm X in an Off Broadway play as superb. However, some purists noted that Washington was far shorter and had a far darker complexion than the real Malcolm X, who stood 64" and had notably reddish hair and a lighter complexion due to his very fair-skinned Grenadian-born mothers partial white ancestry and bore only a passing resemblance to him.


3.5. Production Budget issues

Spike Lee also encountered difficulty in securing a sufficient budget. Lee told Warner Bros. and the bond company that a budget of over US$30 million was necessary; the studio disagreed and offered a lower amount. Following advice from fellow director Francis Ford Coppola, Lee got "the movie company pregnant": taking the movie far enough along into actual production to attempt to force the studio to increase the budget. The film, initially budgeted at $28 million, climbed to nearly $33 million. Lee contributed $2 million of his own $3 million salary. Completion Bond Company, which assumed financial control in January 1992, refused to approve any more expenditures; in addition, the studio and bond company instructed Lee that the film could be no longer than two hours, fifteen minutes in length. The resulting conflict caused the project to be shut down in post-production.

The film was saved by the financial intervention of prominent black Americans, some of whom appear in the film: Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Janet Jackson, Prince, and Peggy Cooper Cafritz, founder of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Their contributions were made as donations; as Lee noted: "This is not a loan. They are not investing in the film. These are black folks with some money who came to the rescue of the movie. As a result, this film will be my version. Not the bond companys version, not Warner Brothers. I will do the film the way it ought to be, and it will be over three hours." The actions of such prominent members of the African American community giving their money helped finish the project as Lee envisioned it.


3.6. Production Request for black interviewers

A month before the film was released, Lee asked that media outlets send black journalists to interview him. The request proved controversial. While it was common practice for celebrities to pick interviewers who were known to be sympathetic to them, it was the first time in many years in which race had been used as a qualification. Lee clarified that he was not barring white interviewers from interviewing him, but that he felt, given the subject matter of the film, that black writers have "more insight about Malcolm than white writers."

The request was turned down by the Los Angeles Times, but several others agreed including Premiere magazine, Vogue, Interview and Rolling Stone. The Los Angeles Times explained they did not give writer approval. The editor of Premiere noted that the request created internal discussions that resulted in changes at the magazine: "Had we had a history of putting a lot of black writers on stories about the movie industry wed be in a stronger position. But we didnt. It was an interesting challenge he laid down. It caused some personnel changes. Weve hired a black writer and a black editor."


3.7. Production Filming

Malcolm Xs widow, Dr. Betty Shabazz, served as a consultant to the film. The Fruit of Islam, the defense arm of the Nation of Islam, provided security for the movie.

When Denzel Washington took the role of Malcolm X in the play, When the Chickens Come Home to Roost, which dealt with the relationship between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, he admitted he knew little about Malcolm X and had not yet read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Washington prepared by reading books and articles by and about Malcolm X and went over hours of tape and film footage of speeches. The play opened in 1981 and earned Washington a warm review by Frank Rich, who was at the time the chief theater critic of The New York Times. Upon being cast in the film, he interviewed people who knew Malcolm X, among them Betty Shabazz and two of his brothers. Although they had different upbringings, Washington tried to focus on what he had in common with his character: Washington was close to Malcolm Xs age when he was assassinated, both men were from large families, both of their fathers were ministers, and both were raised primarily by their mothers.

Malcolm X is the first non-documentary, and the first American film, to be given permission to film in Mecca or within the Haram Sharif. A second unit film crew was hired to film in Mecca because non-Muslims, such as Lee, are not allowed inside the city. Lee fought very hard to get filming in Mecca but Warner Bros. initially refused to put up the money for location shooting. New Jersey was considered for filming the Mecca segments. In the end, Lee got money and permission together for filming in Mecca.

In addition to Nelson Mandela, the film featured cameos by Christopher Plummer as the prisons Catholic chaplain, Peter Boyle as a police officer, William Kunstler as a judge, as well as activists Al Sharpton and Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale as street preachers.

The film was made shortly after Mandelas 1990 release from prison and during the negotiations to end apartheid in South Africa. Lee explained that he made "the connection between Soweto and Harlem, Nelson and Malcolm, and what Malcolm talked about: pan-Africanism, trying to build these bridges between people of color. He is alive in children in classrooms in Harlem, in classrooms in Soweto." Mandela ends the film with a quote from Malcolm X himself, with Malcolm in a film clip saying the last four words. The quote goes: "We declare our right on this earth, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being, in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary."


4. Reception

Malcolm X was released in North America on November 18, 1992. The film was critically acclaimed, and has since garnered a score of 88% on movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes based on 57 reviews, with an average rating of 7.5/10. The critics consensus states, "Anchored by a powerful performance from Denzel Washington, Spike Lees biopic of the legendary civil rights leader brings his autobiography to life with an epic sweep and a nuanced message." Denzel Washingtons portrayal of Malcolm X was widely praised and he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. Washington lost to Al Pacino Scent of a Woman, a decision which Lee criticized, saying "Im not the only one who thinks Denzel was robbed on that one." Washington won the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the 43rd Berlin International Film Festival. The movie received a number of awards at other festivals.

The film grossed $9.871.125 in its opening weekend and finished third after Home Alone 2: Lost in New York $30 million and Bram Stokers Dracula $15 million. According to Box Office Mojo, the film ended its run with a gross of $48.169.610.

The film was widely praised upon its release. Roger Ebert ranked it No. 1 on his Top 10 list for 1992 and described the film as "one of the great screen biographies, celebrating the sweep of an American life that bottomed out in prison before its hero reinvented himself." Ebert and Martin Scorsese both ranked Malcolm X among the ten best films of the 1990s.

In 2010, Malcolm X was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

  • Malcolm X Malcolm Little – Nominated Hero
  • 2003: AFIs 100 Years.100 Heroes & Villains
  • 2005: AFIs 100 Years.100 Movie Quotes
  • Malcolm X: "We didnt land on Plymouth Rock -- Plymouth Rock landed on us!" – Nominated
  • 2006: AFIs 100 Years.100 Cheers – Nominated
  • 2008: AFIs 10 Top 10
  • Nominated Epic Film