Published in 1965, efforts to make a film version of Alex Haley’s Malcolm X began in 1967. Acquired by producer Marvin Worth (Lenny), in 1968 he commissioned novelist James Baldwin to write a screenplay. He was joined by Arnold Perl, who died in 1971. With no studio interested in taking on such a controversial subject, the project languished for years.  Baldwin died in 1987 and his family asked that his name be removed from the credits. The screenplay was eventually credited to Arnold Perl and Spike Lee based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley.

Later, with Warner Brothers having agreed to the project, they wanted Norman Jewison to direct. He was interested but stepped back after a public outcry. Many felt an African American director should helm such a project. Spike Lee was among those voices. Lee, who had wanted to make a film about Malcolm X since college, eventually got the job.

Living in Boston during World War II, Malcolm Little (Denzel Washington) wants to make money, look good and make time with the ladies. He’s a small time criminal, involved in drug dealing, gambling and pimping. Eventually arrested for a series of burglaries, Malcolm is sent to Charlestown State Prison to serve an eight-to-ten-year sentence. There, he meets Baines (Albert Hall) who teaches Malcolm about the Nation of Islam and its charismatic leader Elijah Muhammad (Albert Freeman Jr.). In time, Malcolm immerses himself in the teachings of Islam. Released from prison, Malcolm replaces his last name with the mathematical symbol of X. Little is the name of his ancestor’s slave owner.

A charismatic man, Malcom’s fiery oratory strikes a chord with African Americans frustrated with the focus and/or pace of the civil rights movement. Whites are angry with Malcolm and the ease with which he expresses his dislike for them. For him, whites have no place in African American lives. Given Malcolm’s life experiences, it’s surprisingly easy to understand his point of view. Malcolm becomes the Nation of Islam’s most powerful minister. His continuing desire for enlightenment and understanding eventually threatens not only the Nation of Islam, but Malcolm’s life.

Denzel Washington gives one of the best performances of his career. Embodying his character, Washington captures the cadence of Malcolm’s speech that made him so special. He is a convincing, whether it’s as a small-time thief, or as a powerful minister of Islam. In less skilled hands, the transformation could seem awkward, but Washington fully realizes each personality. Nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, Washington didn’t win the award, something that surprises me more watching Malcolm X almost thirty years later, than it did during the 1993 award season. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

Malcolm X is also a triumph for Spike Lee. He tells a complex and difficult story with authority. His skills behind the camera are on full display. If I have one complaint about the film, it’s Lee’s decision to cast himself as Shorty, Malcolm’s childhood friend. He’s not a bad actor per se, but a trained actor would have been more convincing. Given the breadth of the film, that’s a small misstep that can easily be forgiven. Decades later, Malcolm X remains Spike Lee’s most ambitious project.

Criterion’s 2160p, HDR/DV-enhanced transfer of Malcolm X is unquestionably the best the film has ever looked. Presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, delineation is solid. There are a few brief moments of softness, but those are likely due to lighting choices. The films lush tones look consistent throughout. Hues are vivid and concise. HDR gives colors more power and blacks are dense. Contrast is pleasing. Criterion has delivered an excellent representation of the source. Print flaws are nonexistent.

The included DTS-HD MA 5.1delivers an appropriately subdued experience. Largely front focused, atmospherics are strong. Dialogue is clean, clear and concise throughout. Music is well recorded and unobtrusive throughout. No distortion or other flaws affected the presentation. This mix suits the film very well.

English SDH subtitles are included.

A mix of old and new special features are available on the included Blu-ray discs:

Blu-ray Disc One (film)

  • Audio Commentary: Recorded separately in 2005, director Spike Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, editor Barry Alexander Brown, and costume designer Ruth E. Carter offer a running, scene specific commentary.

BLU-RAY DISC TWO (Special Features)

  • NEW! Spike Lee in Conversation (HD, 25:49) Produced for Criterion in 2022, director Spike Lee and journalist/screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper discuss several aspects of the director’s career. The two have a longtime relationship, Cooper wrote the forward for Lee and Lisa Jones’ 1989 book The Making of Do the Right Thing.
  • NEW! Actor Delroy Lindo (HD, 16:42) In another feature produced for Criterion, actor Delroy Lindo who plays “West Indian Archie” in the film discusses his experience reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and other works by Alex Haley, meeting Spike Lee and more.
  • NEW! Terence Blanchard (HD, 18:43) in the last exclusive produced for Criterion in 2022, famed composer Terence Blanchard discusses his career long collaborations with Spike Lee. Malcolm X was only his second feature-length score.
  • By Any Means Necessary: The Making of Malcolm X (HD, 30:27) Produced in 2005, this production featurette directed by Gary Leva, includes interviews with cast, crew and more.
  • Deleted Scenes (9 clips, 20:41 total) All nine scenes include an introduction by director Spike Lee. “Malcolm and Shorty Watch Cagnie and Bogie,” “Sophia and Peg Case a House,” “Malcolm Reading in Prison,” “The Evils of Pork,” “The Pleasures of an Ice-Cream Soda,” “Malcolm Teaches Benjamin Discipline,” “The Sphinx’s Nose and Lips,” “Malcolm Must Return to America”, and “A Second Chance to Answer the Question.”
  • “Malcolm X” Documentary (91:41) This documentary, released in 1971 and directed by Albert Perl, was nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar. The film is a perfect companion piece to Spike Lee’s production. Highly recommended.
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2:49)
4K UHD Review Malcolm X (Criterion Collection)

Movie title: Malcolm X (1992)

Duration: 201 min.

Director(s): Spike Lee

Actor(s): Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman Jr., Delroy Lindo, Spike Lee

Genre: Drama, Biography, Period, History, Epic

  • Movie
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras