For its first hour, what seems like the perfect blend of director and subject – Spike Lee and the icon of black nationalism – feels like a dud. The then-Malcolm Little’s (Denzel Washington) pre-conversion days drag on forever, and Lee’s far too distracted by period detail (and his bad habit of casting himself). After this there’s still more than two hours to go.
Malcolm undergoes a monumental spiritual and political awakening, and the fireworks begin… Lee had been dreaming of an adaptation of The Autobiography Of Malcolm X since his NYU days, and his passion burns in every frame. Not everybody was so keen, though, and this disc’s thorough extras make clear that Lee had a fight on his hands from day one (predictably, he still sounds pissed off about it).
Somewhat bafflingly, the studio initially wanted Fiddler On The Roof director Norman Jewison at the helm. Lee won the battle to have his name on the back of the chair, but that struggle was nothing compared to the epic clashes he faced over the film’s budget.
He would eventually scrabble together just about enough to make the film he wanted, but only after pretty much every black celebrity in America chipped in, with Lee himself donating two-thirds of his salary. Clashes like these tend not to result in anonymous hack-work and Malcolm X, whatever its historical basis, has the feel as much of an op-ed as a traditional biopic.
One of the few films of its kind to address its subject’s ideas, this is no hagiography. Malcolm said some questionable things, and Lee questions them. The portrayal of The Nation of Islam is brutal – the organisation pushes Malcolm to the fore and then cynically turns against him; in admitting and depicting this complexity, Lee’s film is far from the clarion call some feared in 1992.
He has an argument, and he’s not afraid to make it – which makes for some thrillingly combative cinema. And then there’s Washington. As you’d imagine, the star (notching up his third of five Oscar nods) dominates proceedings as Malcolm, and he’s on career-best form, capturing both public strength and private anxiety with all of the charisma of the real-life man.
Urgent and compelling and alive with a fiery intelligence, Malcolm X was hailed as one of the ’90s’ greats not long ago, but its star has waned in recent years. Now is the perfect time to rediscover it.