Some filmmakers flinch when they finally get to direct their dream project. Spike Lee did not. Lee and his cinematographer Ernest Dickerson had talked about making an epic film version of The Autobiography Of Malcolm X from the time they were students at NYU, and when Lee heard that Warner Brothers had a Malcolm X project in development, he waged a campaign in the media, insisting that only a black director could do the subject justice. Warners relented, but kept Lee on a tight budget, forcing the director to scramble to secure the funds to shoot Malcolm X’s pilgrimage to Mecca, and to get the time he and his editor Barry Alexander Brown needed to give the film its proper shape and pace. Somehow—by any means necessary—Lee and his collaborators got what they needed. Their Malcolm X has real scope, covering the controversial Nation Of Islam leader in full, his boyhood, his criminal years, his conversion, and his assassination each given its proper weight. Yet Lee didn’t make some leaden biopic out of this material, either. The film feels contemporary to its 1992 release date, like a mix of Oliver Stone’s JFK and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. It also feels classic, like Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather movies cut with David Lean, Warner gangster pictures, and MGM musicals. Malcolm X was ripped straight from the cinephile souls of Lee and his creative partners, bearing their own personality and insight (and all for around $30 million).
It helped that Malcolm X contains one of the greatest screen performances of the ’90s. As Brother Malcolm, Denzel Washington conveys the oratorical fire that swayed millions, capturing the original’s cadence and wit with uncanny accuracy. But it’s not an impersonation. Just as Lee’s sensibility suffuses the movie as a whole, Washington is wholly present in this role. He’s not bringing an icon to life; he’s playing a fully realized character, with weaknesses and fears as well as strengths. Washington anchors a sprawling story, allowing Lee, Dickerson, Brown, and company to experiment with different visual styles and editing structures without losing the audience. Malcolm X offers a nuanced and persuasive take on a volatile period in American race relations, using the changes that Malcolm himself went through in his faith and his philosophy as a way of showing that nothing is as static or fixed as it looks in a history book. But even aside from its content, Malcolm X is a powerhouse piece of cinema, serving as a culmination of everything Lee had done up to that point. From She’s Gotta Have It on, Lee used every opportunity to make a movie as an opportunity to express his enthusiasms, his politics, and his point-of-view. Malcolm X was no different. He made a sweeping Hollywood epic, and he made A Spike Lee Joint.
Key features: A bonus disc containing Arnold Perl’s Oscar-nominated feature-length 1972 documentary Malcolm X, plus a revealing making-of featurette, 20 minutes of deleted scenes (introduced by Lee), and a Lee commentary track with Dickerson, Brown, and costume designer Ruth Carter.