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 this was going to be directed by Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof), which attracted criticism and demands that the story be done by a black filmmaker. It 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.
Compare Gandhi, another three-hour biopic about a murdered civil rights activist, released ten years before this one.
This film provides examples of:
- Adaptational Job Change: Malcolm's friend Shorty is apparently a barber in the film. In X's original autobiography, the scene where he relates the story of his first "conk" is set in Shorty's apartment, where Shorty does it himself because it's cheaper than getting one from a barber; in the film, it's set in a barbershop where Shorty apparently works.
- Adapted Out:
- Louis Farrakhan is noticeably absent in the film—presumably because he's still alive and powerful.
- Muhammad Ali isn't even mentioned in the whole Biopic, only quickly at the end, despite both having been very close friends.
- Yuri Kochiyama, Malcolm's Japanese American ally, who cradled his corpse.
- All There in the Script: The scene where Malcom is assassinated names each of the conspirators in the script based on Talmadge Hayers claims of who was there. (Hayer can be identified in the scene as the one assassin who wears yellow pants and is beaten while trying to escape before being arrested by police.)
- 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 change of heart in Mecca.
- Badass in a Nice Suit: Malcolm, and the NoI in general until Malcolm learns of the corruption.
- Berserk Button: Don't ever talk about Malcolm's mother.
- Biopic: About Malcolm X.
- 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 having a change of heart 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.
- Broken Pedestal: Elijah Muhammad for Malcolm. He starts out worshiping the man to the point he says he'd gladly die for him. However, on learning that Muhammad is using his position to take sexual advantage of young women, then has the ones he impregnates expelled from the NoI, Malcolm is utterly appalled and leaves, rethinking his belief system. His public renunciation of the NoI eventually leads to his assassination.
- 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. In both the book and the film, Malcolm notes that his light-skinned mother (the result of her mother's rape by a white man) hated her complexion and that one of the reasons she married his father was because he was dark-skinned and wanted to ensure that her children would have some color. Consequently, he felt that she favored his siblings because they were darker than him. Possibly played straight by his father, who he suspected favored him for the very same reason.
- The Cameo: Nelson Mandela, Al Sharpton and Black Panthers founder Bobby Seale, Christopher Plummer as a racist prison minister, Karen Allen as a racist social worker, Peter Boyle as a bigoted policeman, John Sayles as a racist FBI agent spying on Malcolm, and legendary civil rights attorney William Kunstler as a racist judge. A lot of Playing Against Type here.
- Casting Gag: Legendary civil rights attorney William Kunstler has a cameo as the racist judge whose harsh sentencing of Malcolm and Shorty is clearly motivated by the fact that they've been sleeping with white women. He's not even the only example; well-known Hollywood liberals Peter Boyle and John Sayles have cameos as, respectively, a racist cop and an FBI agent who's listening on Malcolm's conversations.
- Composite Character: Baines, who introduces Malcolm to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, was based on numerous prisoners as well as Malcolm's brother.
- The Coroner Doth Protest Too Much: The brutal death of Malcolm's father was claimed to be suicide by the insurance company since they can withhold payment on his life insurance policy, even though he'd been hit in the back of the head with a hammer and then pushed in front of a train.
- Corrupt Church: The Nation of Islam's leaders are depicted as living lavishly on the donations of their followers, while Elijah Muhammad has multiple torrid affairs with his female secretaries despite preaching about upright living.
- Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangster!: For a while, anyway. Malcolm's "gangster" arc plays out very much like something Martin Scorsese would direct.
- 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.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: The film is very upfront about depicting the casual racism of the first half of the 20th century, but also the Nation of Islam's unapologetically anti-white rhetoric.
- 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.
- Doomed Moral Victor / You Cannot Kill An Idea: "I am Malcolm X!"
- 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.
- Expository Hairstyle Change: Malcolm the gangster wears his hair processed straight. He cuts it into a natural style as he takes on the NOI persona, then grows it out slightly and grows a beard after he leaves the group and takes on a more liberal attitude.
- False Roulette: Malcolm plays Russian Roulette with an empty gun to intimidate a criminal conspirator. This actually happened, apparently.
- Foil: The film implicitly portrays "West Indian Archie" (the gangster whom Malcolm works for in his younger days) as a dark counterpoint to Elijah Muhammad. Both of them are mentors to Malcolm who take him under his wing after recognizing his potential, but ultimately try to have him murdered when he stands up for himself and tries to become his own man. But while Archie is an unrepentant criminal with zero illusions about his line of work, Elijah Muhammad tries to present himself as a respectable moral crusader, taking pride in offering the wayward youth of Harlem a path out of crime. Malcolm ultimately discovers that they're not as different as they might seem.
- Foreshadowing: In a speech, someone calls out "Get your hand outta my pocket!" for no reason. It turns out that the guy was a member of the Nation of Islam doing a dry run for the actual assassination, and someone else (not the same person because his voice sounds different) calls out the exact same thing to distract Malcolm's guards during the assassination.
- From the Latin "Intro Ducere": Malcolm uses this to explain his feelings towards Elijah Muhammad, who had saved his life (in narration lifted directly from his Autobiography).My adoration of Mr. Muhammad grew, in the sense of the Latin root word adorare. It means much more than our "adoration" or "adore." It means that my worship of him was so awesome that he was the first man whom I had ever feared — not fear such as of a man with a gun, but the fear such as one has of the power of the sun.
- Full Moon Silhouette: The scene where the KKK members ride off into the large moon. A Homage to E.T. as noted by Spike Lee.
- Genre Shift: Used to illustrate the phases of the real Malcolm X's life. The first act of the film is a crime drama, the second act is a religious drama, and the third act is a drama about political activism and social justice.
- Hand Signals: Malcolm makes two gestures to the group of men standing outside the hospital to let them know to get moving.
- Half-Breed Discrimination: In both the book and the film, Malcolm notes that his light-skinned mother (the result of her mother's rape by a white man) hated her complexion and that one of the reasons she married his father was because he was dark-skinned and wanted to ensure that her children would have some color. Consequently, he felt that she favored his siblings because they were darker than him.
- Heel Realization: Malcolm after visiting Mecca and seeing true racial equality in action.
- 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 "monk" compared to Martin Luther King. It's not a very well-known fact that King cheated on his wife.
- Imagine Spot: When Malcolm works as a waiter on a train and a white sailor taunts him racially, Malcolm is seen to smash a lemon meringue pie into the guy's face. In his imagination only.
- Impossibly Tacky Clothes: Malcolm wears a bright red zoot suit when he first encounters West Indian Archie in Harlem. When Archie agrees to give him a job, he insists on getting Malcolm a more sensible grey suit. Lampshaded by his two cronies.Sammy: Where'd you get them goddamn vines you got on?
Cadillac: And those shoes? Oh my...
Archie: Well, maybe we can do something about that.
Sammy: Yeah, but he's puttin' a hurtin' on my vision, man! Damn...
- Jerkass Has a Point: Despite having by now been exposed as a womanizing hypocrite, Elijah Muhammad is absolutely right in blasting Malcolm for his insensitive comments about the Kennedy assassination, especially considering that it was in direct defiance of his specific orders to not say anything (in Real Life, the NOI sent Jackie Kennedy a note of condolence) and that he has now made things difficult for the group's public image, which was already not very favorable.
- 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.
- Longer-Than-Life Sentence: The main character's friend, Shorty, faints because he think he will be victim of this trope.Malcolm X (voiceover): Shorty thought he [the judge] hit us with 114 years, until I explained what "concurrently" meant. It meant a minimum sentence of 10 years hard labor at the Charlestown State Prison.
- 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.
- Mouthing the Profanity: Malcolm mouths "Fuck you" to the judge who gives him and Shorty a harsh sentence.
- Oscar Bait: An epic biopic about an icon of the civil rights movement featuring a cameo by Nelson Mandela? Seems like an Oscar grab if ever there was one.
- 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 Indian Archie openly mocks it.
- Prisons Are Gymnasiums: In the scene where a prison chaplain talks to Malcolm in solitary, a prisoner can be spotted in the background doing sit-ups in his cell.
- 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.
- Rule of Three: There are exactly three scenes in the film depicting Malcolm getting a "conk": one in a Boston barbershop, one in his apartment, and one in prison.
- Take That!: Two white agents of the FBI 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.
- There Is No Kill Like Overkill: Despite Malcolm having been felled by two almost certainly fatal blasts from a shotgun, two gunmen run up and continue to empty their guns into him.
- Warts and All:
- The film doesn't shy away from showing in full detail the more controversial aspects of Malcolm X's life and views. 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.