Spike Lee’s films communicate through an emotional, empathetic connection established by his adept classification of complex characters. Lee recognizes that for the viewer to ultimately connect with the protagonist, the film must present this character with all of their conflicting motivations and occasionally uncomfortable characteristics. In many biographical films, the protagonist is depicted as a sort of virtuous specimen whom the audience should revere and automatically consider morally superior. With Malcolm X, Lee deconstructs these thematic undertones that are prevalent within historical biopics whose protagonists never struggle with internal contradictions or conflicts. With his unflinching and deliberate characterization of a controversial figure, Lee utilizes a more panoramic approach to explore the intricacies of the protagonist’s life from his childhood beginnings as Malcolm Little to his untimely death as the revolutionary Malcolm X. Through Lee’s sympathetic, revealing lens, the complexity of this important figure’s life is presented to the viewer with all defenses consciously broken down.
From the opening credits, the complex ideology of Malcolm X is presented to the viewer without any apologies or softened introductions. Over the image of an American flag, Malcolm X (Denzel Washington) preaches about “charging the white man” as a murderer, kidnapper, and enslaver. As the speech is accompanied by rapturous applause, 1991 footage of Rodney King being brutally beaten by Los Angeles police officers intercuts with the image of the American flag slowly dissolving into the letter “X.” This opening scene demands attention from the audience and establishes a radically defiant image of Malcolm X that viewers will eventually come to understand through the rest of the film.
What Lee accomplishes throughout the film ultimately challenges those who choose to hear only the tone of Malcolm’s voice and not the messages contained within it. Over the course of the film, the viewer can empathize with a seemingly larger-than-life figure due to Lee’s careful characterization that does not hesitate to interrogate the blind worship of this icon. The viewer can understand the ways in which systemic white supremacy and racism have shaped Malcolm’s “radical” approach, which functions not as just some oratorical choice, but as a necessary means of survival.
That the film devotes a significant amount of time to Malcolm’s early childhood – which included committing robberies with his friend, Shorty (Spike Lee) – is a brave directorial decision.
Lee recognizes that to understand Malcolm’s perspective means examining the ways in which past experiences have shaped Malcolm’s personal and public statuses.
In a scene of character ambiguity, Malcolm X changes his perspective on his previously separatist stance. As a member of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm champions – for most of the film – the formation of a separate state for African American citizens. This state would lead to a revolutionary new space of consciousness for African American citizens to embrace their spiritual and cultural ties. But as Malcolm embarks on a journey of spiritual enlightenment to Mecca, he recognizes that the Islamic faith can and should be practiced by people from different races. After his journey, Malcolm returns to America with a different perspective and realizes that excluding all but African Americans from Islamic worship is a restriction on his own liberating ideologies.
After returning to America, he declares in a press conference that the concept of African American separation from white America will not be the line of thought he chooses to preach from this point. After disbanding from the Nation of Islam, he forms a new Islamic organization, the Organization for African-American Unity, founded on the tolerance of all those who worship. This recognition placed in a less-nuanced historical film could be misconstrued as a hypocritical or contradictory position for Malcolm X to adopt; a revelation of this sort is also often, in that context, glossed over or omitted entirely from the characterization of the historical figure for the sake of consistency. Within this film, though, Lee carefully unfolds this scene with such empathetic, nuanced understanding that the viewer can regard this new revelation not as a moral contradiction, but as a conscious change for Malcolm.
Contextually placed within the canon of other historical biopics, Malcolm X emphasizes a deliberate shift away from mythic representation and instead focuses on empathetic connection. Indeed, the film is a three-hour-long historical epic, but this is not solely to depict a larger-than-life revolutionary: it is to foster an understanding of the complex person behind the figure.