“Malcolm X is a film that the young generation of Americans should see.”– Ossie Davis
I’ve referenced Spike Lee’s Malcom X in a few of my reviews, mainly to get people to watch it as I believe it’s one of the greatest films of the past fifty years. But now, I felt it was the time to write an actual recommendation for it rather than just mention it in passing.
Malcolm X, written by Lee and Arnold Perl and largely based on Alex Haley’s ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’, follows the life of Malcolm X/Malcolm Little/El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, through his imprisonment, his devotion to the Nation of Islam, his influential activism, and his assassination. It doesn’t hold back at portraying the life of Malcolm X, it shows you the person he was, through his crime-ridden upbringing to his inspiring activism.
Before the film even started filming, it was already going through controversy. Originally, Norman Jewison (director of In The Heat of the Night and A Soldier’s Story (and a white guy)) was going to direct it. Spike Lee, including anyone else with any sense, saw this idea as insulting. You see, at the time, Spike Lee and Ernest Dickerson, Lee’s longtime cinematographer, had this grand idea for a film about Malcolm X, so when they saw this proposal, they knew what to do. After some protest, Jewison stepped down and Lee got his spot and was soon to begin directing his dream project.
The film’s production had one major problem: they needed a substantial budget. The studio wasn’t willing to fork over the money needed, but Spike went ahead and pushed through anyway. They finished the first cut and the day of the film’s first test-screening was the day of the Rodney King riots. During post-production, the film was shut down after not meeting the length requirement by exceeding 2 hours and fifteen minutes. So, Spike decided there was only one thing left to do.
Lee explained in “By Any Means Necessary: The Making of Malcolm X” that “to me, one of the greatest things Malcolm ever talked about was self-determination of Black people.” So, he called up as many prominent Black Americans he could think of to ask for money. The list of names included people like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Michael Jordon, Magic Johnson, Janet Jackson, and Prince, all of them and more gave up money to save the film.
Malcolm X is a modern American epic. The film (and the film’s production) tells the story of one man’s self-determination and pride to do what needed to be done by any means necessary. The film is an inspiring and touching tribute to one of the greatest men the world has ever seen.
Denzel Washington gives a career-defining performance as Malcolm X, it simply is one of the greatest performances of all time. The cinematography is gorgeous and sucks you into the film. The production design ranging multiple decades is rich in detail and helps elevate the believability and truth of the story. Spike Lee is a genius and one of the greatest filmmakers ever.
The film opens with a burning American flag intercut with footage of the beating of Rodney King while Malcolm X, with the amazing score by Terence Blanchard in the background. There’s a tear-jerking scene involving Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and it’s probably my favorite scene in the film. It’s so harrowing and heart-wrenching and I dare not give any more details about it.
The film runs at 202 minutes (3 hours & 22 minutes), but trust me, it’s worth it. I implore you to find the time to watch this film if you haven’t. I cannot recommend this film enough. It’s one of the greatest films ever made, hands down. It’s one of the most important films ever made. If you can’t think of why Malcolm chose the ‘X’, then see this film, but if you do know why, then watch the film anyway.
I’ll end this review the same way the film ends:
“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.”– Malcolm X
The film is available to watch on HBO Max and to rent on Amazon.