Denzel Washington has been the main cog in many important films over his long and highly decorated career. One of these epic films is now available on HBO Max and it is one you may not want to miss.
Malcolm X stars Denzel Washington as the African-American Muslim minister and human rights activist and it should go without saying, especially to those who know his story, that Malcolm X was a complex individual.
The film follows Denzel Washington as Malcolm Little from a young boy (via flashbacks) to the petty criminal and convict to the man who would redefine who and what he is to become the controversial and outspoken Malcolm X.
As a child, Malcolm was raised in rural Michigan. It’s a tough upbringing only to get worse when the Little’s home burns to the ground. Malcolm’s father, a black activist, is then murdered by the Black Legion.
With Malcolm’s mother unable to cope mentally, Malcolm and his siblings are forced into protective care. Malcolm shows the ability to learn, performing well in school, but his dreams of becoming a lawyer are dashed by a teacher who claims Malcolm’s skin color won’t allow for it.
Now a teenager, Malcolm catches the eye of Sophia, a young white girl. The two begin to date, a big no-no at the time. Malcolm gets caught up with West Indian Archie, a local gangster and they set up an illegal numbers racket. When a dispute arises over a winning number that Malcolm claims he won, he and Archie have a falling out. Malcolm then goes on to start committing robberies with Sophia and their two friends in order to earn money.
Malcolm and his crew are eventually caught and he, along with his pal Shorty, are sentenced to 8-10 years in prison. While in prison, Malcolm meets Baines, who is a member of the Nation of Islam. Baines introduces Malcolm to the teachings of his leader, Elijah Muhammad, and begins to find interest in the Muslim religion and its lifestyle. Malcolm also begins to resent white people for how they’ve mistreated his race.
Malcolm serves six years of his sentence and upon his release, he travels to Chicago where he finally meets Muhammad. It is at this meeting that Muhammad convinces Malcolm to replace the “Little” name with X. Malcolm then converts to Islam and takes on the Malcolm X name.
Malcolm, now full of purpose, begins to preach the message of the Nation. He promotes separating African-Americans from White Americans. His speeches only reach a few at first but over time, larger crowds begin to listen. His belief is strong, calling for the separation of blacks from whites.
But Malcolm X wouldn’t be the figure he was if not for change. Over time, after marrying Betty Sanders and the couple having four daughters, Malcolm finds himself as the spokesperson of the Nation of Islam. It is also at this time that he finds out that Muhammad had fathered numerous children, all out of wedlock, going directly against the Nations teachings.
1964 is the year that changes everything in how Malcolm views blacks and whites. This is the year that Malcolm goes on his pilgrimage to Mecca, and it is there that he learns that Muslims come from all races, including white. Malcolm then begins to tolerance instead of separation.
But Malcolm, over the years, has made a number of powerful enemies. In 1965, while getting ready to speak before a large crowd at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, Malcolm X was assassinated by disciples of the Nation of Islam.
Spike Lee, who also played Shorty in the film alongside Denzel Washington, brought Malcolm X’s story to the big screen. Much like Malcolm X’s life, though, the journey to the big screen was not without plenty of controversies itself.
Lee was one of the main voices of disapproval when Warner Bros. announced that Norman Jewison was hired to direct the film. Jewison, whose early works included the amazing In the Heat of the Night, a 1967 film that won five Academy Awards and starred Sidney Poitier and Best Actor winner Rod Steiger, eventually gave up the project. He did that, though, not because of the upheaval surrounding his hiring, but because he could never come to terms with Malcolm X’s private and public lives, and he was not enthralled with Charles Fuller’s script.
Spike Lee made his Malcolm X with Denzel Washington for $35 million which brought back $75 million at the box office. It was that first number, though, that caused strife between Lee and Warner Bros. After Lee was brought in as director, he told Warner Bros. that he required a budget of over $30 million. Warner’s scoffed at the number, telling him $28 million is what he will be getting to make his film.
Taking advice from a fellow director and someone who knew how to work the system, Francis Ford Coppola, Lee took his production far into filming before going back to the studio and telling them he needed more cash to finish the movie. Warner Bros. finally acquiesced to his financial request.
Another issue Lee had when filming was the actual pilgrimage to Mecca. It took some doing (and more financial maneuvering) but Lee’s Malcolm X became the very first non-documentary as well as the first American film to be granted permission to film in Mecca, the holiest of Muslim cities. Lee fought hard but Warner Bros. was unwilling to give him the money necessary nor was Mecca allowing him in. Eventually, Warner’s and Mecca came to terms with Lee. Money has a way of making sides see eye-to-eye.
While Denzel Washington was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for Malcolm X, he did not take home the prize. He did, though, take home the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor.
Malcolm X is just one of the many important and noteworthy performances in the career of Denzel Washington. The list is impressive and includes A Soldier’s Story, Cry Freedom, Philadelphia, The Hurricane, Remember the Titans, Training Day, and American Gangster.
Be prepared when you sit down to watch Denzel Washington in Malcolm X. Not only does Lee touch on the highlights of Malcolm X’s life, but he does it at his own pace as the film runs nearly three and a half hours.
You can see Denzel Washington’s award-winning performance as Malcolm X on HBO Max.