Celebrating the Significance of Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” 25 Years Later

On November 18, 1992, Spike Lees quintessential masterpiece “Malcolm X” opened in theaters after a year long marketing campaign so intense that it spawned a merchandising windfall for anyone with the ability to place the image of El Hajj Malik Shabazz onto a t-shirt. The extreme anticipation that the films coming wrought was amplified by Lee himself, who went so far as to declare the films release a national holiday worthy enough to excuse hooky, resulting in a volcanic type eruption of Malcolm X caps and Africa medallions that summer. 

The film, written and directed by Lee, starred Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Delroy Lindo and Albert Hall. It is not only one of the best films of the 90s but is also considered by many to be Lees best film of his amazing career.  The screenplay for Malcolm X, which was a redo from a Arnold Perl script from two decades prior, is heavily based off Alex Haleys 1963 book The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which Haley and Malcolm himself collaborated on.

MALCOLM X – Trailer – (1992) – HQ

Trailer for Spike Lee’s film starring Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Delroy Lindo, Albert Hall, Al Freeman Jr., Spike Lee, Kate Vernon, Lonette McKee, Roger Guenveur Smith, Theresa Randle, Debi Mazar, Christopher Plummer, Peter Boyle, Tommy Hollis,

The motion picture dramatizes the most pivotal moments in Malcolms life; his criminal life, incarceration, transition from Malcolm Little to “Detroit Red” and eventually Malcolm X after converting to Islam, his ministry for the Nation of Islam, his eventual departure from the group and his eventual assassination in the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights. But the drama captured by the movie was matched by the controversy stirred up once the ink on the contract dried. 

A central piece of controversy was Malcolms fiery denouncement of white led governmental and cultural influence over people of color in America. He was a symbol of two extremes in Black America; some calling him radical and others happily following his messages. Yet after his assassination, Malcolm and his wisdom grew in status in the black community, with his autobiography becoming required reading in many college courses. 

The initial selection of “Heat of the Night” director Norman Jewison as the director caused another media firestorm as Lee and others questioned why Warner Brothers would not hire a black director to do this film. As some may recall, Jewison was the reason Denzel agreed to join the film in the first place. Jewison would eventually leave the project because of his stated inability to reconcile the public and private lives of Malcolm, and because he believed the initial script was inferior as well. 

“I’m directing this movie and I rewrote the script, and I’m an artist and there’s just no two ways around it: this film about Malcolm X is going to be my vision of Malcolm X, Lee told Newsweek during a 1991 interview. But it’s not like I’m sitting atop a mountain saying, ‘Screw everyone, this is the Malcolm I see.’ I’ve done the research, I’ve talked to people who were there.

MALCOLM X – Trailer – (1992) – HQ

Trailer for Spike Lee’s film starring Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Delroy Lindo, Albert Hall, Al Freeman Jr., Spike Lee, Kate Vernon, Lonette McKee, Roger Guenveur Smith, Theresa Randle, Debi Mazar, Christopher Plummer, Peter Boyle, Tommy Hollis,

Indeed, many of the same individuals who criticized the film while Jewison was attached to the project, levied those very same concerns against Lee himself. His class, his pedigree and even his complexion were used to put pressure on Spike. 

But Spike refused to back down. 

Eventually, budgetary concerns between what Lee wanted to spend and what the studio was willing to provide became an issue, leading Spike to open his rolodex, and a star-studded list of friends that included Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Prince and others responded by with contribution to help make the finished product what Spike had wanted the entire time.

Malcolm X was critically acclaimed, garnering a score of 91% on  Rotten Tomatoes. Denzel’s portrayal of Malcolm X was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, but he lost to Al Pacino for his role in Scent of a Woman. 

Lee was not pleased,  saying “I’m not the only one who thinks Denzel was robbed on that one.”

Worthy of celebration and praise, Malcolm X is not simply the best “Black” movie of the 90s, but one of the greatest examples of American cinema of all time.

Happy 25th to the cast and crew of Malcolm X.

I am Malcolm X- Film Cilp

Go to our website for more spoken word from Buju Banton, Lauryn Hill, Saul Williams and many others…


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