The film, based on "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" by Alex Haley and Malcolm X, with a script written by Spike Lee and Arnold Perl, faced similar turbulence because of its subject matter. Lee was unable to obtain proper studio funding for the project, resorting to a widespread fundraising campaign targeting well-known Black celebrities and philanthropists, eventually releasing a book detailing the struggle. But what made the film much more than a dramatic documentation about a popular figure were its performances. Denzel Washington, then a rising actor after turns in "Glory" and "Mo' Better Blues," approached the role with a fierce eye for mastery. Even as new information about Malcolm's life has been unveiled over the years, Washington's portrayal of the man still resonates with a certain truth. His ability to deliver Malcolm's diction, his body language, his confident, assured demeanor when swarmed by reporters, or when addressing a massive group of followers in a protest, all comes through.
Lee couples these more joyous scenes with ones of intense pain, and a certain recognition of an eventual doom. We are present with Malcolm as he crawls around the floor of a jail cell, when he addresses the small gathering of Muslims as a new minister, and even when he bears the pain of his first "conk." Malcolm is at his best and at his worst in this film. Washington plays him as a person, and not as a "hero" or a "figure."
In recent conversations about upcoming biopics, including who will be cast, and who will direct, a closer look at this film could provide insight into capturing the life and work of popular figures. Beyond the physical likeness that is at times important, there's a commitment that an actor must make to studying and entering into the mind and world of the person they're portraying.
Other than “Malcolm X,” what are some of the best (and worst) casting decisions made for a Black biopic?
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Editor’s Note: Shadow and Act partnered with XFINITY to celebrate Black entertainment. Be sure to visit xfinity.com/celebrateblacktv, a unique digital community built around the love of Black entertainment. Shadow and Act hopes to enrich this community and provide a launching pad for insightful discussion. Look to Shadow and Act for features and content examining and exploring key themes and topics that run throughout the history of Black entertainment.