In the 20 years since Malcolm X defied the odds and became a bona fide Hollywood hit, Spike Lee has made other memorable films but none as significant. The 1992 film, which starred Oscar winner Denzel Washington in the title role, was a hard sell. Although Malcolm X was an iconic historical figure, he wasn’t one of the most embraced leaders on the planet, and generally that translates into empty seats at the multiplex.
So, when Lee ran out of money, he reached out to the community. Oprah, Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan and others wrote checks so that we could see Washington in arguably his finest performance ever. And also so we could discover and rediscover the talents of Angela Bassett, Delroy Lindo, Al Freeman Jr., Roger Guenveur Smith, Giancarlo Esposito and Ernest Thomas. The cast, assembled by Emmy-winning casting director Robi Reed, rivaled Gone With the Wind in numbers. “Spike and I wanted to give everyone a chance to be part of history,” Reed told The Root. “We wanted great actors.”
Two decades after the movie’s release, The Root has taken a look back at X‘s impact on the film industry and America in general.
And Then There Was D
Denzel Washington had already amassed a considerable body of work before X, but the images of him leading that march to a New York City hospital, delivering his famous “hoodwinked, bamboozled, led astray” speech in Harlem and conking his hair are forever entrenched in our psyches. X was the definitive role of his career, and even though the Academy rewarded Al Pacino with the best actor Oscar for Scent of a Woman in ’93, it’s D’s performance that everyone still remembers. He carried that movie, subsequently becoming one of America’s most respected actors. According to Reed, Washington wasn’t just the first choice; he was “the only choice.”
Most folks will forever remember the late Al Freeman Jr. as Capt. Ed Hall, the role he played on the daytime drama One Life to Live. But his performance as Elijah Muhammad in X truly showed what a gifted thespian Freeman was. He was absolutely mesmerizing — particularly in his scenes opposite Washington. Reed said she found him living on his boat in D.C. where he was teaching. While it’s true that Washington got snubbed at the Oscars, the ultimate dis may have been that Freeman wasn’t even nominated.
Bassett as Betty
At that point in time Angela Bassett had appeared in Boyz n the Hood as the ex-wife of Laurence Fishburne’s character, but it really wasn’t until she played Dr. Betty Shabazz in X that people started to realize the depth her talent. It was a small part but a masterfully nuanced performance. And although her performance didn’t create any buzz during awards season, guess what? The very next year Bassett earned her first Oscar nomination, playing Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It.
Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here
Just because X was Lee’s first big-budget studio film, it didn’t mean he was going to go all Hollywood and forget the peeps who helped him out during the leaner years. The X cast included: Giancarlo Esposito (Do the Right Thing, School Daze), Roger Guenveur Smith (DTRT), Raye Dowell (She’s Gotta Have It), Eric Payne (SGHI, SD), Nick Turturro (DTRT), Lonette McKee (Jungle Fever) and Ossie Davis (DTRT, SD, JF), who was heard and not seen as the voice of Malcolm’s eulogist.
Zoot Suit's All That
Oscar-nominated costume designer Ruth E. Carter told us that when she got the call that she was nominated, the only thing she really remembers is “hanging up the phone.” It was that surreal. Carter and her team had to come up with designs from five decades — the 1920s through the 1960s — including that cool zoot suit Washington wore from the ’40s. That was challenging, but what was even trickier was having to do all of her fittings in a building Lee had just bought in Brooklyn, N.Y. The unit was so new that it had no heat! “The actors would be trying on clothes standing next to space heaters,” she told The Root with a laugh.
The X Factor
After this film was released you could barely take two steps down your block without seeing an X. Lee’s Spike’s Joint stores in Los Angeles and Brooklyn sold all kinds of X merchandise, from baseball caps, jackets and jerseys to buttons, posters and pendants. Lee was getting paid, but also came under fire for exploiting Malcolm X’s legacy. His response in a Los Angeles Times article on Nov. 6, 1992: “I will not speak for Malcolm X. I will say that Malcolm was about black economic development. That’s what I’m about. We’re about giving young black kids jobs … This is what America is about. What does Madonna do? Come on.”
How It Went Down
When Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, it wasn’t breaking news on TVs across the nation. As a Muslim, Malcolm X was not portrayed as a hero in the white-controlled mainstream press, so a lot of folks really didn’t know the circumstances surrounding his death. Lee’s film gave us a clearer view of how it happened and indirectly pointed a finger at the Nation of Islam, since Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad had been publicly feuding just before the leader was slain in front of his wife and family in New York’s Audubon Ballroom. Thomas Hagan was the only man there who admitted his role in the assassination and spent 44 years in jail before being paroled two years ago.
A New Nation
If you didn’t know much about the Nation of Islam before the movie, Lee does present a fairly balanced portrait of the religion. Yes, some were angry militants who used their power for far more nefarious personal pursuits, but when we see Malcolm X go to Mecca and witness his subsequent evolution, we have a better understanding of what Islam is really all about. That sequence was beautifully filmed (actually shot in Egypt), and costumer Ruth E. Carter said was one of her favorites.
Spike as Shorty
Lee has traditionally used himself as the comedic relief in most of his films, and Malcolm X was no exception. Shorty is a character always looking for the quick fix and living on the edge. He’s slick and cool. Who can forget the scene when he’s “conking” Malcolm X’s hair? But unlike the characters Lee played in his previous films, Shorty evolves. He is the perfect sidekick to the straight brother.
There are more than 75 credited performances in X, including two unknowns at the time who went on to do pretty big things. Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos) played a reporter, and Elise Neal (The Hughleys) played a hooker.
Getting Past the Snubs
Casting director Robi Reed couldn’t believe it when Washington didn’t win and the film wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. “This isn’t happening,” she said. “Not only do they deserve a nomination but they deserve to win. I hoped that the disappointments felt would quickly pass and not overshadow the greatness that was displayed in every ounce of that movie. I remember thanking God that no matter what the Academy said, the proof of what should have been would never dissipate, and this great film would infinitely live.”