How Spike Lee’s ‘Malcolm X’ Helped Black America Find Its Voice
On its 25th anniversary, Stereo Williams examines the tough battle Lee and Denzel Washington faced in making their towering biopic of Malcolm X, and why it still resonates today.
Spike Lee’s Malcolm X is one of the towering cinematic achievements of the 1990s. The dramatic retelling of the life and history of Malcolm X is Lee’s crown jewel and one of the most acclaimed performances of actor Denzel Washington’s career. Twenty-five years later, its subject matter is just as timely as ever. And the story of its making is particularly resonant in a time when black stories are being rolled out on the big and small screens at a rate that we haven’t seen since, well…25 years ago.
The film’s history is famously complicated. There had been talk of a film about the life of Malcolm X since the late 1960s, when producer Marvin Worth secured the movie rights to his autobiography from Malcolm’s widow Betty Shabazz and author Alex Haley. Worth recruited James Baldwin to pen a screenplay. The experience proved ultimately fruitless and frustrating for Baldwin. Malcolm’s associates were pressuring Baldwin to deliver their version of Malcolm’s story, while the movie producers wanted to see their version on the page. Struggling with his own emotional burnout in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Baldwin was finding it hard to get this script going.
Blacklisted screenwriter Arnold Perl was brought in to assist with the screenplay, which was overlong and lacked a clear ending—largely due to Baldwin’s concerns about the Nation of Islam. But Baldwin was chiefly frustrated by Columbia Pictures’ machinations; he felt the white filmmakers were all-too-eager to levy blame at the Nation of Islam for Malcolm’s death as a way of softening the racism he’d suffered at the hands of whites. Vowing to never repeat the experience, Baldwin ultimately departed the film in the early 1970s. He would release his version of the script as the book One Day When I Was Lost in 1972.
For almost twenty years, Warner Bros (who’d gotten the rights after Columbia dumped the project) attempted to revisit the Malcolm X screenplay. David Bradley, Charles Fuller and David Mamet were considered for revisions to the script. There was talk of Sidney Lumet directing, and Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor were considered for principle roles. But nothing really materialized until Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night) was named as a likely director for the revamped project in the late 1980s. Spike Lee, a critical darling following acclaimed films like She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze, was particularly vocal in his criticism of a white director helming a film about the life of Malcolm X. A letter-writing campaign ensued against Jewison directing (Lee denied that he had anything to do with it.)
“I had problems with a white director directing this film,” Lee told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “Unless you are black, you do not know what it means to be a black person in this country.”
The backlash against Jewison galvanized Lee’s campaign to direct the movie himself, noting that many affiliated with Malcolm wouldn’t have been comfortable sharing stories with white filmmakers.
“These people are very leery of opening up to white directors,” Lee also stated at the time. “Most black people are suspicious of white people and their motives. That's just reality.”
Lee’s bravado had become something of a hallmark for the director; he was now fully centered in the pop culture conversation following the success of 1989’s Do the Right Thing, and was being lauded as leader of a vanguard of new black filmmakers looking to stake their claim in cinema. Lee would be named director of the forthcoming film, but it wasn’t hailed as a victory for black filmmakers at the time. Quite the contrary, many elder civil rights leaders had a problem with Hollywood’s trendy new Negro filmmaker taking over the movie. One of the most vocal critics was Amiri Baraka, who felt that Spike would exploit the story of Malcolm X.
“We will not let Malcolm X’s life be trashed to make middle-class Negroes sleep easier,” Baraka famously said, criticizing Lee’s previous work as stereotypical. “People ask me, ‘Why you messing with Spike?’ Spike Lee is part of a retrograde movement in this country.”
Betty Shabazz served as a consultant to Lee on the movie and voiced her support for the director and expressed understanding of his critics. “Just because Spike Lee is doing a film, don’t mean he owns Malcolm,” Shabazz pointed out in the months prior to its release.
The pervading idea was that Spike Lee was going to make the Malcolm X movie that Hollywood wanted him to make. The apprehension was understandable, and after learning that Oscar-winner Denzel Washington would be playing the lead (he’d been cast by Jewison while he was still affiliated with the film), there seemed to be further evidence of Malcolm’s mainstreaming.
But the skepticism proved to be somewhat unfounded once the cameras started rolling. Lee brought a devotion and fervor to the project that led to clashes with Warner Bros. Most notably, his demand of a $33 million budget was reduced to $25 million as the studio balked at the idea of flying Washington and a crew to Mecca and Cairo to film scenes depicting Malcolm’s hajj. The studio wanted the scenes to be filmed in Arizona to cut costs; Lee stood his ground and the crew was able to film in The Holy City, becoming the first-ever non-documentary (and American film) to do so.
“What we really want to put out is what we feel is the true image of Malcolm because there have been so many misconceptions of what he stood for—Malcolm X hated white people, Malcolm X promoted violence, Malcolm X this, Malcolm X that.”
“A lot of people's perceptions [about Malcolm X)] came about by the media,” Lee said, adding that, “Malcolm X scared not only white people but many blacks of his generation as well.”
But the ballooning cost led to a clash between Lee and Completion Bond Company, which had assumed costs midway through production. The bond company declared that the movie would not be longer than 2 hours 15 minutes and explained that Warner Bros. would not provide any additional funding. Lee famously fought to finish the movie as he saw it; and money was donated by luminaries such as Prince, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Janet Jackson, Duke Ellington School of the Arts founder Peggy Cooper Cafritz, and Lee himself.
The film would be released on Nov. 18, 1992. Spike Lee’s Malcolm X is a cinematic tour-de-force; a layered, gorgeous examination of a man’s complex and powerful life—with a towering performance from Denzel Washington, as well as Angela Bassett as Betty Shabazz and Delroy Lindo as Malcolm’s mentor in crime from his early days in Harlem. Lee’s typical heavy-handedness is decidedly muted in X; there’s a grace that belies his reverence for the material, even while opening the film with footage from the then-current and still-relevant Rodney King beating of 1991.
Lee famously urged students to skip school to see the movie upon its release; and drew heavy criticism when he said he only wanted to be interviewed by black media. Lee’s audaciousness has always been a gift and a curse, but in the tense aftermath of the L.A. riots and with an election year swirling, his approach seemed to amplify an ongoing conversation about race and racism that American still wrestles with 25 years later. And it definitely rankled people in high places.
The movie was famously snubbed at the 1993 Academy Awards. Washington received a nomination for Best Actor, but the film was not nominated for Best Picture nor was Lee for Best Director. Washington would lose Best Actor to Al Pacino for Scent of A Woman.
In fighting to make the film that he wanted to make—from his anti-Jewison campaign to his move to land outside funding—Lee upended the standard operating procedure Hollywood tended to exercise when making black films. Even when looking at some of the movies that have come in the years since X, it’s obvious that black period pieces are given limited room to be fully realized. Major studio biopics like Get on Up (about the life and career of James Brown) and 42 (about baseball legend Jackie Robinson) are rarely given the kind of funding that is granted to films such as Lincoln or Walk the Line. For X to be made the right way, it needed someone willing to fight against that. And in the end, the film was stronger for it—as was black filmmaking.
Even today, Malcolm X feels like the crescendo of sorts for the wave of black filmmaking that had come to the fore in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Beginning with Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It in 1986, a generation of rebel filmmakers that also included Keenan Ivory Wayans, John Singleton, Julie Dash, Reginald Hudlin, Robert Townsend, Matty Rich and the Hughes Brothers had redefined what it meant to tell black stories onscreen. Ambitious films like Jungle Fever and more modest successes like The Five Heartbeats had become standard-bearers of black cinema—some with mainstream co-signs and some without.
In Lee’s sprawling, ambitious biopic, filmgoers were given a black cinematic epic; it covers decades in the man’s life while also highlighting the black American experience from the ‘40s to the ‘60s. The great cultural awakening of black people over that same period of time is embodied in Malcolm’s life experiences—from rural and impoverished, to urban and disenfranchised, imprisonment and enlightenment. In the story of one man finding his purpose, Spike Lee gave us the story of a people finding their voice.