"Cats that hung out together trying to find a solution found nothing. Cats that might have probed space or cured cancer, West Indian Archie might have been a mathematical genius... but we were all victims of the American social order."
— Malcolm X
A 1992 film by Spike Lee, Malcolm X starred Denzel Washington as the real-life black nationalist leader. The film starts with his childhood as Malcolm Little, who later grows up to be a gangster with his best friend Shorty. In prison, he is introduced to the teachings of the Nation of Islam and officially names himself Malcolm X upon release. He initially preaches black separatism, but renounces his extreme beliefs when he makes the pilgrimage to Mecca. Of course, this doesn't go well with others.Originally was going to be directed by Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof), but this attracted criticism and demands that the story be done by a black filmmaker. Caused a bit of a controversy when Spike Lee said in an interview that kids should skip school in order to see the movie, as well as a fashion fad of hats and T-shirts with "X" on them. (Since a single letter can't be copyrighted, these were easy to produce.) It was the first non-documentary to gain permission to film in Mecca, though Spike Lee was not there to do so, as, being non-Muslim, he was forbidden to enter the city.
This film provides examples of:
Actor Allusion: The late Al Freeman, Jr., who plays Elijah Muhammad, played Malcolm X in Roots: The Next Generations.
An Aesop: The film ends with a teacher, Nelson Mandela and Ossie Davis all directly telling the audience that Malcolm X was a great guy, and don't listen to his critics.
Angry Black Man: Malcolm becomes this after he converts to the Nation of Islam. Later, he renounces these beliefs after his Heel-Face Turn in Mecca.
Badass Beard: Malcolm sports one after he comes back from Mecca.
Bittersweet Ending: Malcolm dies, but his messages - to the Black communities, to the nation and to the world - to fight for civil rights live on.
Black and Grey Morality: As the movie points out, the crusaders in the Nation of Islam could often be just as virulently racist as the White authorities that they preached against, and even Malcolm himself started off like this before his Heel-Face Turn in Mecca. As great as Malcolm's contributions to the civil rights movement were, the movie reminds the audience that he was far from perfect, depicting his criminal escapades in great detail. A few of the characters even comment openly on his abuses of power, though the audience is ultimately left to decide whether or not these complaints are justified.
Boomerang Bigot: Young Malcolm and other self-hating blacks, who only want to be white.
But Not Too Black: Inverted. Denzel Washington actually has a far darker complexion than the real Malcolm X, who had notably reddish hair and rather light skin due to partial white ancestry, making this also a case of Fake Mixed Race.
The Cameo: Nelson Mandela, Al Sharpton and Black Panthers founder Bobby Seale, Captain Von Trapp as a racist prison minister, Marion as a racist social worker, Frank as a bigoted policeman, and legendary civil rights attorney William Kunstler as a racist judge. . . a lot of Playing Against Type here.
Composite Character: Baines, who introduces Malcolm to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, was based on numerous prisoners as well as Malcolm's brother.
Dawson Casting: Malcolm is in his late teens when the film starts, but played by the then-30-something Denzel Washington. Justified as he continued to play Malcolm throughout the duration of the movie and the rest of Malcolm's life.
Death by Irony: In the beginning, Malcolm preaches how the white man are the devils and how they're out to get black people. When he has a change of heart, it's people of his own race (and the same group he was such a prominent part of) who do him in.
Description Cut: Played for very dark laughs in the scene after Malcolm converts to Islam in prison. He writes a letter to Elijah Muhammad to tell him that he has decided to join the Nation of Islam, and we hear him enthusiastically saying in his voiceover that he has written to his old friends from Harlem to spread the word of the great Elijah Muhammed. We then cut to West Indian Archie and his cronies reading his letter and laughing uproariously, and then to Shorty reading it in his prison cell, shaking his head dejectedly and muttering that Malcolm has lost his mind.
Et Tu, Brute?: Malcolm is crushed when he discovers that his mentor, Baines—the man who helped him out of prison—not only knows of the corruption of the NoI, but is taking part in it.
A young man Malcolm has similarly mentored reveals that he was asked to wire Malcolm's car so that it would explode when he turned the ignition, but refused, as he loved Malcolm too much, thus averting this trope.
Heel Realization: Malcolm after visiting Mecca and seeing racial equality in action.
Heel-Face Turn: After he goes to Mecca and realizes that every word that came out of No I's mouth regarding their bastardization of Islam was nothing but horseshit.
Historical In-Joke: A bit of a mean one when the FBI agents make a crack about how Malcolm X, the loyal family man, is practically a saint compared to Martin Luther King. It's not a very well-known fact that King cheated on his wife.
Kubrick Stare: At least twice, from Malcolm. The first time is when, as a kid, he has to sit through a lecture by a teacher about why he shouldn't even bother wanting to be a lawyer, because he's black. Much later, when he meditates after finding out just the allegations against Elijah Muhammad are all too true...he opens his eyes—and gives a simmering Stare of Tranquil Fury.
Mood Whiplash: The ending montage and the subsequent "I am Malcolm X!" sequence are considerably more upbeat and optimistic than the three-odd hours of film before them. Justified, since they're retrospectives from the present day, and the change in mood helps highlight the changes in American race relations that have taken place since Malcolm's death. Though most of the movie paints Malcolm as an Anti-Hero with his share of human flaws, the ending reminds the audience that, in spite of all that he went through, he ultimately emerged as a shining symbol in the fight against racism.
Parental Abandonment: His father is literally thrown under a bus (or, to be specific, streetcar) by the Black Legion (a splinter group from the Ku Klux Klan), and his mother is institutionalized.
Pimp Duds: Malcolm's and Shorty's suit-style of choice, until West India Archie openly mocks it.
Ripped from the Headlines: Though the events in the movie take place from the 1940s to the 1960s, Lee took great pains to remind audiences in the 1990s why Malcolm's legacy was still important to them. Fittingly, the movie begins with footage of the Rodney King beating played over Malcolm's speech, and it ends with Nelson Mandela, soon to be elected President of South Africa, quoting Malcolm X to a group of schoolchildren.
Soft Glass: Somewhat averted. The scene where the guy in the club told Malcolm to "crawl back to his mama," Malcolm just kinda slinked away to the bar with his head lowered as if he were scared. Then he grabs a bottle and immediately smashed it against the man's face telling him not to insult his mama. The glass broke rather easily, but the guy's face was utterly covered in blood from the glass. This could be a measure of just how hard Malcolm hit him.
Take That: Two white police officers admit offhand that at least Malcolm X is faithful to his wife, unlike Martin Luther King, Jr. Due to the frequent comparisons between the two civil rights figures, the line prompts viewers to see all civil rights leaders as human beings and be more forgiving of Malcolm X's own imperfections.
Warts and All: The film doesn't shy away from the more controversial aspects of Malcolm X's life. In fact, it seems to embellish his criminal career.
It also mentions Martin Luther King's affairs with other women.
We Need a Distraction: When Malcolm is about to give a speech, an audience member starts shouting loudly about another man trying to pick his pocket. When Malcolm's bodyguards leave their posts to break up the fight, another man lets off a smoke bomb so everyone will start running around in panic, whereupon the assassins move in and shoot Malcolm.
Where Da White Women At?: Malcolm and Shorty go with a couple of white women. He also claims the severe sentences handed down by the (white) judge at their trial were because of their relationships with these women, who get off light themselves. Earlier Malcolm accuses his white girlfriend of only being with him because she can control him by threatening to cry rape.
X Makes Anything Cool: This actually caused the studio some trouble when the movie came out, because a number of hats and t-shirts and things with a simple "X" on them were produced, but because you can't copyright a single letter, nobody had to pay the studio anything to make them.
Your Cheating Heart: Malcolm cheats on his girlfriend Laura with a white woman, then cheats on his new girlfriend with another girl. He gets better. When the feds are spying on him later in life, one notes, "Compared to King, this guy's a monk." Martin Luther King engaged in extramarital affairs.