The Legacy Left Behind: A Look Back at Spike Lee’s Malcolm X Biopic

The Legacy Left Behind: A Look Back at Spike Lee’s Malcolm X Biopic

Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” (1992) has been described by many as one of the greatest biopics in cinematic history. In the 202 minute run time, the film covers the many layers of the divisive Civil Rights leader’s life, from his early moments as Malcolm Little and small-time gangster “Detroit Red,” to his role as Malcolm X, spokesman for the Nation of Islam, and lastly his acceptance of mainstream Islam as el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, Muslim activist. The film reached its 30th anniversary last year and still remains as historically significant as it was upon its release in 1992, highlighting the experiences of Black Americans during the height of the Civil Rights era.  

Spike Lee was dedicated to honoring Malcolm X’s story and advocated for the film to be developed by a Black director. In 1992, Lee told the Los Angeles Times “I had problems with a white director directing this film. … Unless you are Black, you do not know what it means to be a Black person in this country.” Originally, Norman Jewison, a Canadian film and television director, was named as a likely choice for director. However, he received vehement backlash and a letter campaign was started to protest against him taking on the film. Spike Lee, who at the time was making a name for himself as a leader of a wave of black filmmakers, was positioned as the new director in 1990. At the time, he had directed a number of movies centered around Black culture and examining the complexities of the African American experience including “He Got Game” (1998) and “Do the Right Thing” (1989) 

Even before filming began, the production of “Malcolm X” received mass support and was funded in part by a pool of Black celebrities. The film was initially funded by Completion Bond Company, but there was push back regarding Lee’s proposed movie length. The production company was adamant that the film could not extend beyond a two hour and 15 minutes run time, and if it did, additional funding would not be provided. However, Lee had a specific vision for the biopic and fought to extend the film. He reached out for financial support from a handful of celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Janet Jackson and Bill Cosby, to name a few. With the funding from these large donations and the money he had contributed from his own salary, Lee was able to continue production on the film. There was a collective understanding of the necessity of this biopic and there was a push to make the film possible despite the obstacles that arose. 

On Nov. 18, 1992, “Malcolm X” was released to audiences, coinciding with the eruption of the LA riots. The brutal beating of Rodney King, at the hands of the police, reignited a conversation about racial divide in the United States which made the significance of capturing Malcolm X’s story even more crucial. Malcolm X was a disruptor and thought leader who fought against the systems of oppression that still impact the lives of Black people in this country. His contributions to the Civil Rights movement remain salient, and for those reasons, Spike Lee’s biopic has stood the test of time as a film that powerfully captures his life and legacy. 

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