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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:
- An Aesop: The film ends with a teacher, Nelson Mandela and Ozzie 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.
- Berserk Button: Don't ever talk about Malcolm's mother.
- Boomerang Bigot: Young Malcolm and other self-hating blacks, who only want to be white.
- Broken Pedestal: Elijah Muhammad for Malcolm.
- 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.
- Composite Character: Baines, who introduces Malcolm to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, was based on numerous prisoners as well as Malcolm's brother.
- Corrupt Church: The NoI is not portrayed very positively, which is Truth in Television.
- 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.
- Doomed Moral Victor / You Cannot Kill an Idea: "I am Malcolm X!"
- Drugs Are Bad
- Executive Meddling: The studio demanded the film not be longer than 2 hours, 15 minutes and the budget not higher than around 32 million dollars. Luckily, multiple prominent African-Americans stepped in to donate money so Lee could make the film as long as he wanted.
- False Roulette: Malcolm plays Russian Roulette with an empty gun to intimidate a criminal conspirator.
- Foregone Conclusion: Malcolm X is murdered by members of the Nation of Islam.
- Heel Realization: Malcolm after visiting Mecca and seeing racial equality in action.
- Parental Abandonment: His father is literally thrown under a bus (or, to be specific, streetcar) by the Black Legion (a splinter group from the KKK), and his mother is institutionalized.
- Redemption Equals Death
- The Sixties
- Take That: The film casts a surprisingly unfavorable light on Martin Luther King. The only time he's mentioned by another character is to point out that he had extramarital affairs, in contrast to Malcolm X. The film also airs a soundbyte of King reacting to X's assassination in which he comes across as tepid and guarded. In real life he had sent an eloquent letter of condolence to X's widow.
- 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 the 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.