Malcolm X

by Logan Gion

The Basics

Malcolm X


Directed by Spike Lee

Starring: Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Spike Lee, Albert Hall

Why is Malcolm X considered obligatory?

Considered the definitive cinematic portrayal of the Civil-Rights figure, Malcolm X marked a new high in achievement from both prolific director Spike Lee and American Black filmmakers in general. While Denzel Washington was already an actor with solid credits to his name, this film launched his reputation into the stratosphere. Malcolm X boasts a 7.7/10 on IMDb, an 89% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes (and a 91% audience score), and a 77/100 on Metacritic.


Why did you watch Malcolm X now?

Febuary’s theme was–

Early 90’s



–but life got in the way, so I had to take a break, meaning that I was unable to post on the films I wanted.

Seperately, this month’s theme was going to be “April in Paris,” but, between covering Sight and Sound’s top pick as well as their favorite comedic movie, followed by last month’s Femme French New Wave film and a female-directed rumination on restrained masculinity, I realized that half of the movies that I watched this year have been in French!

Therefore, this month’s theme is–

April NOT in Paris

And wouldn’t ya know it? Malcolm X visits dozens of cities in this movie–but Paris ain’t one of ’em.

What’s Malcolm X about?

Malcolm Little is a teenager in 1940’s Boston when he, his friend, and their girlfriends form a bank-robbing gang. After they get caught, Malcolm begins a harrowing detox process in prison. At Malcolm’s breaking point, a seemingly righteous man named Baines steps in to help. Baines is a member of the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist movement headed by Elijah Muhammad. Baines indoctrinates Malcolm into the movement’s ways, and Malcolm becomes a sterling example of the movement’s aim to uplift Black communities in America.

Malcolm emerges from prison as Malcolm X, since “Little” was his ancestors’ slave name. A new man, Malcolm begins earnestly singing the praises of Elijah Muhammad’s greatness. As he does so, he meets Betty Shabazz, and, together, they create a loving family. Malcolm’s got it all–a pure purpose for his work, a wife and children who love him, and high standing in a community that’s ravenous for more of his message. Hell, he’d almost make a better head for the movement than Elijah! While Malcolm X certainly doesn’t think this way, the same cannot be said of those above him…


What did you think of Malcolm X?

When I was a film student, my peers were either echoing the praises of Spike Lee or sick to death of hearing about how good he was. I was trying to fill bigger gaps in my cinematic knowledge (I hadn’t even seen The Godfather when I enrolled). A decade later, Spike Lee finally won an Oscar for BlackKklansman, and sectors of Hollywood repeated much of the praise I’d previously heard. I had watched BlackKklansman and thought it was quite good, but I still didn’t understand the hype surrounding the auteur, especially when his previous effort at the time was the subpar Oldboy remake.

Well, after watching Malcolm X, I’ve had my own conversion–sorry I’m late.

This movie clocks in at a hefty 201 minutes, but felt like half that time. The camera is always framed purposefully, but never hits its viewer over the head, trusting its audience to absorb what’s on screen. The editing jams flashbacks abruptly into scenes, subjectively showing viewers how Malcolm’s mind works as well as the immense trauma he carries.

Supercharging the screen are Denzel and Angela Bassett’s performances, each electrifying moment of their presence causing viewers to clamp their arms onto their seats. Bassett especially shines in the second half, anchoring the sections covering the Civil Rights years. 

Finally, the screenplay manages the impossible: it portrays the essence of a man’s life while also covering his multiple belief conversions with nuance. The real Malcolm X was, for decades after his death, villainized for wanting “to kill white people.” Of course, this was racist rewriting of a more complex message, one that evolved over the man’s life. The film Malcolm X covers the misconstruction, addresses its subject’s shortcomings, and lays bare the pure intentions the Civil Rights figure was trying to convey.

Sounds like this movie should’ve cleaned up during Oscars season, huh? Nope! It was nominated for Washington’s performance and costumes, winning neither. Angela Bassett, in a trend that continues to this day, was denied the recognition she deserved.

See why 18-year-old me got deluged with “Spike Lee is so underrated!” takes? Sorry, past me, but I currently agree.


Okay, but would the average person appreciate Malcolm X nowadays?

Absolutely! Those who wouldn’t should probably watch it anyway.

While wracking my brain to find reasons someone wouldn’t like this picture, the only nitpicks I could find were slight over-stylization during certain sequences and Spike Lee’s occasionally less-than-stellar acting performance. The former issue, however, gives the movie an experimental edge that current viewers will appreciate while the latter is understandable considering the caliber of Lee’s co-stars.

Electric, riveting, and upsettingly relevant, Malcolm X is well worth the time spent watching. Its message is essential, so, like the FBI agents illegally wiretapping Malcolm X’s home, listen closely.


Who’s the audience?

  • Mid-century fashion obsessives
  • History teachers who think MLK Jr. was the only Civil Rights leader worth covering
  • Uneducated film students ignorant of Spike Lee’s contribution to cinema

Where can I watch Malcolm X?

Read this review's companion piece here:

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