As cineastes worldwide honor the thirtieth anniversary of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), it is clear that the passage of time has only solidified the film as a masterpiece that functions simultaneously as a mesmeric character study and an unflinching history lesson. Malcolm X is a sober portrait of truth within a nation intoxicated by falsehood. Malcolm X is a seething celluloid abstract painted by Lee in sometimes acetylenic brushstrokes and hung in an American Museum of Shame. Malcolm X is a woeful reminder of the past, an acerbic confirmation of the present, and an unsettling harbinger of the future.
Simply stated, Malcolm X is one of the greatest films ever made.
Lee’s 1986 feature debut, She’s Gotta Have It, already displayed the work of a passionate filmmaker. In it, he balances a sexual-coming-of-age story with a carefully layered character study, of Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), who explores her appetites through three different men. With this one film, Lee created his own Black nouvelle vague. She’s Gotta Have It felt like the freshness of Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 and of John Cassavetes’s Faces—it was defiant, comedic, unchartered, confessional, and explosive. He continued to elevate his high-stakes filmmaking game by exploring the intraracial dynamics of Black university life, as a musical, in School Daze (1988); the racial tinderbox of gentrification and heated prejudice during one hot summer in Brooklyn in Do the Right Thing (1989); bebop/cool jazz/self-discovery in Mo’ Better Blues (1990); and interracial sexual intrigue, set against one Black family’s implosion during the crack-cocaine era, in Jungle Fever (1991).
And then came Malcolm X.
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