Bringing The Autobiography Of Malcolm X to the screen had been Spike Lee's dream project since college, and it was an ideal project for the director of 1989's Do The Right Thing, an incendiary statement on contemporary race relations. So when he discovered that Warner Brothers was setting up the film for Norman Jewison, the earnest studio hand behind A Soldier's Story and Fiddler On The Roof, Lee issued the provocative response that only a black person could direct the film. The studio (and Jewison) eventually agreed and allowed Lee to take over the epic endeavor, but for all the controversy stirred up prior to its release, Malcolm X doesn't seem substantially different from something Jewison might have done. Though it's a handsome, powerful biopic—faithful to the letter if not the spirit of its source material—the film still seems like a failure of nerve, a gentle homage to one of recent history's most galvanizing figures.
Lee spends most of his rhetorical currency in the opening credits, a charged montage sequence that runs Malcolm's sharp-tongued sound bites over images of the Rodney King beating and an American flag burning into an X. But after bringing his words into the here and now, Lee settles into a stately, absorbing treatment of X's long spiritual and political awakening, and his eventual growth into a fearsome leader. Utterly convincing in the varied stages of his life, Denzel Washington makes X's transformation seem like the natural evolution of a proud, stubborn rebel who was strengthened and humbled by God's truth. Known as "Detroit Red" in the late '40s, X ran numbers and drugs for a Harlem crime boss (Delroy Lindo), cavorted with white women, and eventually landed a prison sentence for a string of burglary convictions. While in jail, he found religion and wholly devoted himself to the Black Muslim movement under Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman, Jr.), who framed his people's disenfranchisement and oppression in stark, empowering terms. Once X was freed, his powerful voice made him a controversial figure in the movement and the ongoing civil-rights struggle, leading to a rift with Muhammad that eventually cost him his life.
Nothing is out of place in Malcolm X: Lee patiently reveals each logical step in Malcolm's unlikely ascendancy, handles his courtship and marriage to Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett) with disarming tenderness, and evokes three turbulent decades with a scrupulous eye for detail. And yet the force of X's message remains oddly muted, perhaps because the biopic genre demands more of an emphasis on its subject than on what its subject represents. Given Malcolm X's volatile personal history, a true portrait of the man shouldn't be so unimpeachable, since his ideas still carried enough of a charge to alarm studio heads and social commentators long before the film was released. It turns out they had nothing to fear.
A 30-minute documentary produced exclusively for the new Malcolm X DVD shows unusual candor in detailing Lee's behind-the-scenes battles with the studio and the bond company. Following Francis Ford Coppola's advice to "get the movie company pregnant"—meaning get far enough along in production to keep the studio from aborting—Lee exceeded an unrealistically stingy budget and was actually shut down in postproduction. The film only got back on track and won the support of its wary studio after the intervention of moneyed black friends like Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jordan. In a way, the making of Malcolm X probably says more about the state of contemporary race relations than the movie itself.