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The 'X' Factor

Spike Lee’s controversial Malcolm X overcame racial and financial hurdles on the way to its Nov. 18, 1992, premiere.

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Few movies endured more controversy or traveled a longer and harder road to the screen than Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. Not only did the film focus on one of America’s most polarizing figures, it arrived during a racially charged period that saw the premiere of New Jack City marred by violence, Ice-T’s song ”Cop Killer” spark protests, and the L.A. riots scar the nation’s psyche. And so it seemed perversely appropriate for Malcolm X to open on Nov. 18, 1992.

Lee had become a fan of Alex Haley’s 1965 book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, when he read it in junior high. In 1990, on the heels of his early triumph Do the Right Thing, he lobbied publicly to helm a dramatic version of the book, which had bounced around Hollywood for more than 20 years — and was finally set to star Denzel Washington and be directed by In the Heat of the Night’s Norman Jewison. Lee’s pitch? In this particular case, he’d bring more verite to the cinema than Jewison. Besides: ”How does a white director have a copyright on epics?”

Lee landed the job and went to work with a modest $28 million budget from Warner Bros. But costs ballooned as the production bounced around the globe tracing the civil rights leader’s evolution from zoot-suited hood to Nation of Islam mouthpiece to Mecca pilgrim to slain martyr. At $5 million over budget, the film’s insurance company threatened to halt production, and Warner balked at coughing up more dough. So Lee turned to black celebs like Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jordan to help finance the 201-minute saga’s completion. ”We’ve ended up with a low-budget epic,” cinematographer Ernest Dickerson remarked, implying that a white picture might have gotten more money. Still, at the time it was the most expensive movie ever helmed by a black director.

While the 35-year-old Lee drew fire for including clips of the Rodney King beating in his film’s opening credits, not to mention for saying he preferred to be interviewed by black journalists and that African Americans should skip school to catch the movie on opening day, audiences of all colors were undeterred. Malcolm X grossed a respectable $48 million and was showered with critical praise (though only two Oscar nods).

Yet perhaps the film’s greatest legacy, however dubious, was a $100 million merchandise boom that saw everyone from Japanese kids to Bill Clinton sporting X-emblazoned attire. As Lee wrote in his 1992 chronicle of the film, By Any Means Necessary, three decades after Malcolm X was killed, ”people, especially black people, still responded to what he was saying.”