International release poster featuring Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in an iconic pose
|Directed by||Spike Lee|
|Produced by||Spike Lee
|Screenplay by||Spike Lee
|Based on||The Autobiography of Malcolm X by
Al Freeman, Jr.
|Music by||Terence Blanchard|
|Edited by||Barry Alexander Brown|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros. Pictures(domestic)
|Box office||$48.2 million|
Malcolm X is a 1992 American biographical drama film about the African-American activist Malcolm X. Directed and co-written bySpike 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 as Shorty, a character based partially on real-life acquaintance Malcolm “Shorty” Jarvis, a fellow criminal and jazz saxophonist. Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and future South Africa president Nelson Mandela have cameo appearances. This is the second of four film collaborations between Washington and Lee.
The film dramatizes key events in Malcolm X’s 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 father’s death, his mother’s mental illness, and his experiences with racism are dramatized in flashbacks.
Malcolm X’s screenplay, co-credited to Lee and Arnold Perl, is based largely on Alex Haley’s 1965 book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Haley collaborated with Malcolm X on the book beginning in 1963 and completed it after Malcolm X’s 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
- 2 Cast
- 3 Production
- 4 Reception
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 External links
Malcolm X begins with a title sequence featuring an American flag being consumed by fire, intercut with George Holliday’s iconicvideotaped footage of the beating of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King. A voice-over of Denzel Washington as Malcolm X angrily condemns white America: “We don’t see the American dream; we’ve experienced only the American nightmare!” The burning flag eventually becomes the letter “X”.
The film opens in earnest in Boston in the “war years” (the early 1940s). Malcolm “Detroit Red” Little, a troubled, small-time criminal and his friend, Shorty, are walking down a street in gaudy zoot suits. Little also receives a conk from Shorty. They concoct various criminal schemes to make money. Eventually, Little becomes involved with a Harlem gangster named West Indian Archie (Lindo). Archie takes Little on as his protégé, but they ultimately have a falling out over money owed Little, who accuses Archie of “slipping” mentally. After a fight, Little flees back to Boston. There, he is reunited with Shorty and becomes romantically involved with white women. Little and Shorty target a wealthy white couple and rob their home. However, sometime later in 1946, all are arrested for the crime; the two women are sentenced to two years in a womens reformatory while Little and Shorty get eight-to-ten years each in prison, a much stiffer sentence because they associated with white women than the two-year terms they would’ve got without being in the white women’s company.
Malcolm Little is initially defiant towards the guards and angrily rebuffs the prison’s chaplain (Plummer). After he emerges from a long stint in solitary confinement, a fellow inmate, named Baines (Hall), tries to help him during withdrawal from cocaine addiction, which Little reluctantly accepts. However, Little, the son of a Garveyite Baptist minister who died violently (which Little alleges was at the hands of members of the Ku Klux Klan), is suspicious of Baines. Baines espouses the Islamic faith; Little resists. But he grows to respect and trust Baines, who educates him further and introduces him to the Nation of Islam which Baines is a member of and insists that God is black. Little is skeptical. When he hears from another inmate that the Brooklyn Dodgers have promoted Jackie Robinson (then a notable Negro League player), Little is happy, but Baines reminds Little to never forget 400 years of oppression. Baines tells Little that blacks are of the Tribe of Shabazz who are lost in North America, all whites are devils, and the Nation of Islam’s founder and leaderElijah Muhammad (Freeman) can lead them to the light. However, when Baines encourages him to pray in the Muslim way, Little can’t bring himself to kneel even though he says he wants to. Later, he has an epiphany in his cell: he is reading a letter from Elijah Muhammad when an apparition of Muhammad comes to him and tells him, “I have come to give you something which can never be taken away from you: I bring to you a sense of your own worth”. When the apparition disappears, he is able to kneel and pray. In 1952, when he is released from prison, the fully converted Little visits Muhammad, who praises his turnaround. He rejects his family name as a “slave name” and, per the Nation of Islam’s naming convention, adopts the surname “X”, signifying the mathematical symbol for the unknown of his lost true African name.
Over the next several years, Malcolm X becomes an increasingly prominent Nation of Islam minister, espousing Islamic principles and the words of Elijah Muhammad, who eventually orders Malcolm to open mosques across the country. He is introduced to Betty X (Bassett). They wed and start a family (four children are portrayed; his twin daughters, in actuality, were born after his death). He is also reunited with Shorty, who informs him of the whereabouts of their former fellow criminals. West Indian Archie is now living in The Bronx. He is destitute and lives in squalor and has suffered severe physical and mental problems due to his drug use. Malcolm takes pity on Archie and vows to help him.
Despite the Nation of Islam growing greatly in size and influence during Malcolm X’s tenure, there is growing resentment of him within the organization. The pro-Elijah Muhammad faction (which includes Baines) perceives that Malcolm X actually considers himself the Nation of Islam and might attempt to force Muhammad out as its leader. Muhammad maintains confidence in his protégè, telling Baines that everything Malcolm has done has benefited the nation. However, Malcolm becomes disillusioned by his mentor’s hypocrisywhen he learns that newspaper reports accusing Elijah Muhammad of fathering children out of wedlock with two women are accurate when he talks to them. Malcolm confronts Muhammad, who justifies his infidelity as the need to “plant his seed in fertile soil”. In November 1963, after making deliberately provocative statements concerning theassassination of President John F. Kennedy in direct violation of Elijah Muhammad’s directive that none of his ministers are to comment on it, Malcolm X is suspended from all activity for 90 days. Feeling betrayed by Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, Malcolm is angry but he neverless submits to the punishment.
Ultimately the following year, Malcolm X is forced out of the Nation of Islam. He publicly announces his intent to think his own thoughts and speak his own words and establish an independent mosque, Muslim Mosque, Inc.. He also announces he will undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca, which every able Muslim man is obligated to do at least once in his lifetime. While there, in a letter to his wife, Betty, which she reads to a group of people, Malcolm updates her on his activities. He informs her that he is being followed by two white men, whom he believes are Central Intelligence Agency agents. He also says he has worshipped with fellow Muslims of all races — including whites. He signs the letter using both his new adopted name, “El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz” and his more familiar name. He returns to the United States with far more moderate views and repudiates racism. He also announces a willingness to work with other civil rights leaders, whom he harshly criticized in the past.
However, his activity engenders the wrath of Elijah Muhammad. In addition to a campaign of telephone harassment, Baines’ own son, who has aligned himself with Malcolm, says he was ordered to kill him by installing an explosive device in Malcolm’s car. Later, a Queens home owned by the Nation of Islam in which Malcolm and his family resided isfirebombed. The family escapes unharmed. In an interview with a local television reporter given while firefighters attempt to put out the blaze, he accuses Elijah Muhammad of ordering it. Baines calls it a publicity stunt.
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X begins a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. However, a disturbance in the audience interrupts him. Malcolm tries to calm people, but moments later, he is shot numerous times. (One of the shooters is Malcolm’s former friend Baines). His wife and children witness it. Three suspects are captured after trying to escape. Later, a hospital spokesman makes a public statement: “The person you know as Malcolm X is no more”.
In archival footage, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. says: “The assassination of Malcolm X was an unfortunate tragedy and reveals that there are still numerous people in our nation who have degenerated to the point of expressing dissent through murder and we haven’t learned to disagree without becoming violently disagreeable”.
|“||Here, at this final hour, in this quiet place, Harlem has come to bid farewell to one of its brightest hopes. Extinguished now, and gone from us forever … It is not in the memory of man that this beleaguered, unfortunate, but nonetheless proud community has found a braver, more gallant young champion than this Afro-American who lies before us unconquered still. I say the word again, as he would want me to: Afro-American — Afro-American Malcolm. Malcolm had stopped being Negro years ago; it had become too small, too puny, too weak a word for him. Malcolm was bigger than that. Malcolm had become an Afro-American, and he wanted so desperately that we, that all his people, would become Afro-Americans, too. There are those who still consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times … and we will smile … They will say that he is of hate; a fanatic, a racist who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say unto them: Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? … Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did, you would know him. And if you knew him, 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 … However much we may have differed with him or with each other about him and his value as a man, let his going from us serve only to bring us together, now … Consigning these mortal remains to earth, the common mother of all, secure in the knowledge that what we place in the ground is no more now a man, but a seed which, after the winter of our discontent, will come forth again to meet us. And we will know him then for what he was, and is: a prince! Our own black shining prince who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so.||”|
The film ends with a scene of a black teacher in an American classroom. Behind her on the blackboard, are the words “MALCOLM X DAY”. She tells the class that it is Malcolm X’s birthday.
“Malcolm X is you — all of you — and you are Malcolm X”, she says.
In succession, some of her students stand up and shout, “I am Malcolm X!”. The scene switches to African students who mimic the American students. The film culminates with recently released anti-apartheid activist and future South African president Nelson Mandela, quoting one of Malcolm X’s speeches, leading into archived footage of Malcolm X asserting in one of his speeches: “By any means necessary!”
- Denzel Washington as Malcolm X
- Angela Bassett as Betty X
- Albert Hall as Baines
- Al Freeman, Jr. as Elijah Muhammad
- Delroy Lindo as West Indian Archie
- Spike Lee as Shorty
- Roger Guenveur Smith as Rudy
- Theresa Randle as Laura
- Kate Vernon as Sophia
- Lonette McKee as Louise Little
- Tommy Hollis as Earl Little
- James McDaniel as Brother Earl
- Steve White as Brother Johnson
- Ernest Lee Thomas as Sidney
- Jean-Claude La Marre as Benjamin 2X
- Wendell Pierce as Ben Thomas
- Giancarlo Esposito as Thomas Hagan
- Leonard L. Thomas as Leon Davis
- Michael Imperioli as Reporter at Fire Bombing
- Nicholas Turturro as Boston Cop
- Bobby Seale as Street Preacher
- Al Sharpton as Street Preacher
- Christopher Plummer as Chaplain Gill
- Karen Allen as Miss Dunne
- Peter Boyle as Captain Green
- William Kunstler as The Judge (Boston)
- Nelson Mandela as Soweto Teacher
- Ossie Davis as Eulogy Performer
- David Patrick Kelly as Mr. Ostrowski
- Beatrice Winde as Elderly Woman
|“It’s such a great story, a great American story, and it reflects our society in so many ways. Here’s a guy who essentially led so many lives. He pulled himself out of the gutter. He went from country boy to hipster and semi-hoodlum. From there he went to prison, where he became a Muslim. Then he was a spiritual leader who evolved into a humanitarian.”|
|— Producer Marvin Worth on his 25 year effort to make a film about the life of Malcolm X|
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. 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 X’s assassination. In 1971, Worth made a well-received documentary, Malcolm X, which received anAcademy 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.
In 1968, Marvin Worth commissioned a screenplay from novelist James Baldwin, who was later joined by Arnold Perl, a screenwriter who had been a victim of McCarthy-erablacklisting. 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 Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X. 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.
The production was considered controversial long before filming began. The crux of the controversy was Malcolm X’s inflammatory and often angry 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 black 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 movie’s release, sales of The Autobiography of Malcolm X had increased 300 percent, and four of his books saw a ninefold increase in sales between 1986 and 1991.
The race of the director
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 Soldier’s 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…There’s 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 Malcolm’s private and public lives and was unsatisfied with Charles Fuller’s script. Lee confirmed Jewison’s 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. “I’m directing this movie and I rewrote the script, and I’m an artist and there’s just no two ways around it: this film about Malcolm X is going to be my vision of Malcolm X. But it’s not like I’m sitting atop a mountain saying, ‘Screw everyone, this is the Malcolm I see.’ I’ve done the research, I’ve talked to the people who were there.”
Concerns over Lee’s 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 Lee’s previous films; others were concerned that he would focus on Malcolm X’s life before he converted to Islam. Baraka bluntly accused Spike Lee of being a “Buppie“, stating “We will not let Malcolm X’s life be trashed to make middle-class Negroes sleep easier”, compelling others to write the director and warn him “not to mess up Malcolm’s 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 DVD’s audio commentary that when the film was released, he and Denzel Washington had their passports handy in case they needed to flee the country.
Concerns over Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm X
As previously noted, Denzel 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 Washington’s 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 6′ 4″ and had notably reddish hair and a lighter complexion (due to his very fair-skinned Grenadian-born mother’s partial white ancestry) and bore only a passing resemblance to him.
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 company’s 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 monies helped finish the project as Spike Lee envisioned it.
Request for black interviewers
|“I’m doing what every other person in Hollywood does: they dictate who they want to do interviews with. Tom Cruise, Robert Redford, whoever. People throw their weight around. Well, I get many requests now for interviews, and I would like African-Americans to interview me. [. . .] Spike Lee has never said he only wants black journalists to interview him. What I’m doing is using whatever clout I have to get qualified African-Americans assignments. The real crime is white publications don’t have black writers, that’s the crime.”|
|— Spike Lee explaining his request for black interviewers|
A month before the film was released, Spike 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 we’d be in a stronger position. But we didn’t. It was an interesting challenge he laid down. It caused some personnel changes. We’ve hired a black writer and a black editor.”
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 X’s 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 Spike 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 prison’s 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 Mandela’s 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.”
Malcolm X was released in North America on November 18, 1992. The film was critically acclaimed, garnering 91% on movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Denzel Washington’s 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 “I’m 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 Stoker’s 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.
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