The Odyssey of a Classic | Malcolm X


It’s such a great story, a great American story, and it reflects our society in so many ways. Here’s a guy who essentially led so many lives. He pulled himself out of the gutter. He went from country boy to hipster and semi-hoodlum. From there he went to prison, where he became a Muslim. Then he was a spiritual leader who evolved into a humanitarian.”

Producer Marvin Worth on his 25-year effort to make a film about the life of Malcolm X

Twenty-three years ago on this date, writer/director Spike Lee’s most decorated film, Malcolm X, opened in theaters nationwide. While the film has ascended to almost iconic status, today, many forget the tremendous pressure that everyone associated with the film felt before the cameras rolled on this classic work.

While the film finally made it to theaters in 1992, the odyssey to tell the story of the celebrated Muslim minister and a human rights activist began 25 years earlier, in 1967, when producer Marvin Worth purchased the rights to Alex Haley’s book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Worth remembered meeting Malcolm X back in the day when he was a teenager hustling in Harlem when he was simply known as “Detroit Red.” Worth was fifteen at the time, and spending time around jazz clubs in the area. As Worth remembers: “He was selling grass. He was sixteen or seventeen but looked older. He was very witty, a funny guy, and he had this extraordinary charisma. A great dancer and a great dresser. He was very good-looking, very, very tall. Girls always noticed him. He was quite a special guy.”

His affinity for Malcolm would be immediately put to the test when his production team had difficulties telling the entire story, in part due to unresolved questions surrounding Malcolm X’s assassination. In 1971, Worth received an Academy Award nomination for his critically acclaimed documentary, Malcolm X. He still dreamed of a feature film version, but the project remained unrealized. Despite his inability to wrap his arms around how to tell the story, the project was a hot property in Hollywood with a slew of A-list talented attached over the years, including Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and director Sidney Lumet.


Worth commissioned a screenplay from James Baldwin in 1968, who was soon joined by the former blacklisted screenwriter, Arnold Perl. Despite their efforts, they were unable to capture the essence of Malcolm’s life. Perl would die in 1971 and Baldwin would continue to grind away trying to complete their work.

Baldwin developed his work on the screenplay into the 1972 book, One Day, When I Was Lost, a scenario based on Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, before he too passed away in 1987. Several additional authors took a pass on creating drafts, including David Mamet, David Bradley, Charles Fuller and Calder Willingham.

After a long delay, Warner Bros. finally agreed to make a film of Malcolm’s life. Once they agreed to the project, they initially wanted Academy Award-nominated director Norman Jewison to direct the film. Jewison, director of the legendary 1967 Sidney Poitier civil-rights film, In the Heat of the Night, was able to convince Denzel Washington to play Malcolm X as they had previously worked together in 1984’s A Soldier Story.

As soon as Jewison was announced as director, a huge protest erupted over the fact that a white director was slated to make the film. One of the main voices of dissent belonged to Lee, who considered a film adaption of The Autobiography of Malcolm X to be a dream project. He and others felt that it was appropriate that only a black person should direct the film.

After months of being pilloried in the press, Worth finally relented and pulled out of the project. “It needed a black director at this point,” said Jewison. “It was insurmountable the other way . . . There’s a grave responsibility here.” Despite leaving the project, Jewison noted he gave up the movie not because of the protest, but because he could not reconcile Malcolm’s private and public lives and was unsatisfied with Charles Fuller’s script. Lee confirmed Jewison’s position, stating, “If Norman actually thought he could do it, he would have really fought me. But he bowed out gracefully”.

Warner Bros. then named Lee the director, and immediately he made substantial changes to the script. “I’m directing this movie and I rewrote the script, and I’m an artist and there’s just no two ways around it: this film about Malcolm X is going to be my vision of Malcolm X. But it’s not like I’m sitting atop a mountain saying, ‘Screw everyone, this is the Malcolm I see.’ I’ve done the research, I’ve talked to the people who were there.”

They say you should be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. Never were those were truer than for the young director who would soon discover that this only the beginning of a huge struggle to get Malcolm’s life to the big screen.

From the beginning, neither the studio or Lee could see eye-to-eye on the film’s budget. He told Warner Bros. and the bond company that a budget of over $30 million was necessary, but the studio disagreed and offered $28 million. Following advice from fellow director Francis Ford Coppola, Lee got “the movie company pregnant” (taking the movie far enough along into actual production to attempt to force the studio to increase the budget).

Soon, the budget climbed to nearly $33 million, which forced Lee to contributed $2 million out of his own $3 million salary. In addition, the Completion Bond Company, which assumed financial control in January 1992, refused to approve any more expenditures AND both Warner Bros. and bond company instructed Lee that the film could be no longer than two hours, fifteen minutes in length. This conflict led to the project being shut down in post-production.

Just when all seemed lost, several angel investors stepped up. The film was saved by the financial intervention of prominent black African-Americans, some of whom appear in the film: Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Janet Jackson, Prince, and Peggy Cooper Cafritz, founder of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, who all made donations. An emotional Lee noted, “This is not a loan. They are not investing in the film. These are black folks with some money who came to the rescue of the movie. As a result, this film will be my version. Not the bond company’s version, not Warner Brothers’. I will do the film the way it ought to be, and it will be over three hours.”

In a strange and ironic twist, the protests that vaulted Lee to the director’s chair over Jewison came home to roost for Lee when he received criticism from black nationalists and members of the United Front to Preserve the Legacy of Malcolm X, headed by poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, who were worried about how Lee would portray Malcolm X. Also, Lee was called to Chicago to meet with the Honorable Louis Farrakhan who strongly asked that the mention of his name be omitted from the film. Reminiscing on the immense pressure faced to produce an accurate film, Lee jokingly stated on the DVD’s audio commentary that when the film was released, he and Denzel Washington had their passports handy in case they needed to flee the country.

Because of the lack of resemblance between Malcolm and Denzel Washington, some purists noted that Washington was far shorter and had a far darker complexion than him. Malcolm X, who stood 6′ 4″ and had notably reddish hair and a lighter complexion (due to his very fair-skinned Grenadian-born mother’s partial white ancestry) and bore only a passing resemblance to him. Citing Washington’s performance as Malcolm X in an Off-Broadway play as superb, Lee stated he never envisioned any actor other than Washington in the role.

Lee was also able to secure permission to film in Mecca (or within the Haram Sharif), giving it the distinction of being the first non-documentary, and the first American film, to accomplish this feat. A second unit film crew was hired to film in Mecca because non-Muslims, such as Lee, are not allowed inside the city.

Another casting coup was getting Nelson Mandela to appear in the film. He had recently been released from prison and Lee made “the connection between Soweto and Harlem, Nelson and Malcolm, and what Malcolm talked about – Pan-Africanism, trying to build these bridges between people of color. He is alive in children in classrooms in Harlem, in classrooms in Soweto.” Because of his beliefs, Mandela At the end of the film, Mandela addressed a South African classroom with one of Malcolm X’s speeches. He refused to say the last part of it, “by any means necessary.” Therefore, Lee inserted Malcolm X saying it himself.

Released on November 18, 1992, the film was critically acclaimed, with many praising Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm X. Washington received a Best Actor Academy Award nomination, later losing Al Pacino (Scent of a Woman), a decision which Lee criticized, saying “I’m not the only one who thinks Denzel was robbed on that one.”

Roger Ebert ranked it No. 1 on his Top 10 list for 1992 and described the film as “one of the great screen biographies, celebrating the sweep of an American life that bottomed out in prison before its hero reinvented himself.” Both he and director Martin Scorsese both ranked Malcolm X among the ten best films of the 1990s. The film would later be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2010.

While Do the Right Thing is considered one of Lee’s best films, we would argue that despite all of the challenges Lee faced in not only getting this story to the screen but the impact and legacy the film still enjoys that Malcolm X is the film that he will most be remembered.