In the past few years, Spike Lee has seemed caught in a war of his own devising. His anger — at Hollywood, the media, the double standards of white America — has become his signature and his trap, fodder for blistering, sometimes reckless public statements and for movies like last year’s Jungle Fever, which got tangled up in the knots of its own outrage. Now, though, Lee’s war may have ended. Malcolm X, his 3-hour-and-21-minute docudrama starring Denzel Washington as the epochal black leader, is a triumph, an intimate and engrossing biographical saga that is also one of the most passionate political films ever made in this country. It’s a shock, at first, to see Lee tone down his trademark razzle-dazzle — the whirling-bumblebee camera work, the stylized blasts of comedy and rage — to make a lavishly conventional Hollywood biopic. Yet the middlebrow-epic form hasn’t flattened out Lee’s personality. (His sense of show-biz surprise is still very much alive — notably in the film’s final, trump-card cameo by Nelson Mandela.) If anything, working on the broad canvas of history has brought him to a new level of subtlety and emotional vividness. This may be the first time he seems fully relaxed as a filmmaker.

Brilliant and singularly charismatic, Malcolm X remains one of the most misunderstood leaders of the 20th century. His most famous statement, that American blacks should fight for their rights ”by any means necessary,” has often been taken, at least by whites, simply as a declaration of tactical militance, a violent alternative to the civil disobedience advocated by Martin Luther King Jr. More than King, though, Malcolm was struggling not merely to win American blacks their rights but to alter their fundamental self-images as human beings. With his incisively honed anger, his words that sliced like a laser through centuries of oppression and slave psychology, he was really saying: Anyone who isn’t ready to fight for his dignity will, by definition, never have it.

In his 39 years, Malcolm X was many things: criminal, prisoner, leader, mystic, martyr. Lee takes us through the cathartic evolutions of his life, from his days as an exuberant young hustler in postwar Boston and Harlem through his conversion to the regimented sectarianism of the Nation of Islam; from his rise to power as a community organizer to his cataclysmic break, 12 years later, with the Nation’s enigmatic cult leader, Elijah Muhammad (played by Al Freeman Jr.); from his unvarnished hatred of all whites to his pilgrimage to Mecca and subsequent renunciation of black separatism. The drama of Malcolm X lies not simply in Malcolm’s constantly shifting personas but in the interior journey they represent — that of a man learning to recognize (and harness) his own intellectual and spiritual powers.

The first hour, which follows Malcolm Little’s adventures as a zoot-suited young criminal, is one of the most magical pieces of popular moviemaking in years. Working with cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, who creates an effusion of psychedelic color, Lee establishes a vibrant universe of movers and shakers (the director himself appears as Malcolm’s buddy Shorty), a funky inner-city demimonde decades hipper than the white society surrounding it. Washington’s Malcolm is a flashy, nihilistic stud who knows exactly when to assert his will and when to pull back. Whether challenging his West Indian gangster boss (Delroy Lindo) or ordering his doting white lover (Kate Vernon) to kiss his foot, he radiates supreme confidence, a drop-dead refusal to be anyone’s ”boy.” Washington shows us the qualities in Malcolm — the preternatural fearlessness, the pride shading off into narcissism — that would later form the bedrock of his political personality.

Arrested for burglary, Malcolm is sent to prison, where he serves time in solitary — a grueling, masterfully staged sequence — and then has his consciousness raised by Baines (Albert Hall), a glowering Nation of Islam member who gets him to let go of everything he has been taught by white society. It’s when Malcolm gets out of prison that the film undergoes its most radical tonal shift. As he begins to speak in public, his volatility now subsumed into the moralistic discipline of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X begins to mirror his new rigidity and stoicism. The film becomes a little remote, even monochromatic; you may find yourself pining for the effulgent high spirits of the first hour.

Yet this is all part of Lee’s design. Malcolm X is the story of a man who discovers he’s wearing invisible chains — who realizes that all the pleasure and freedom he has felt in his life really mean nothing. Despite a few piercing, close-up glimpses of Malcolm’s marriage to Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett), most of the film’s second half steers clear of his private life — which, in a sense, had ceased to exist — riding along instead on the thrilling waves of his rhetorical virtuosity.

At first, as Malcolm ventures into Harlem, competing with dozens of other street-corner preachers (including one played by the Reverend Al Sharpton), he seems pleading, tentative, too ineffectual to win people’s attention. Before long, though, a current of fury begins to pulse through his words. He becomes a mesmerizing contradiction: hot-blooded yet coolheaded, his message of disciplined fervor coursing through every cadence. It’s by liberating his anger and then taming it with his mind that Malcolm becomes a transcendent speaker. And Washington’s revelatory performance shows us his indomitable resolve as if from the inside out. He captures Malcolm’s electrifying sense of articulation and control, the way he was able to purge his presence of all self-doubt. When Malcolm marches into a police station and shocks everyone there by demanding to see a Nation of Islam member who has been arrested, we seem to be witnessing a seismic shift in the identity of a race.

Of course, Malcolm’s story did not end in triumph. In the last part of the film, Lee indulges in some of his only stylistic tricks — at one point, the camera takes a mesmerizing 360-degree spin — to communicate the sullen dread experienced by Malcolm when he realizes that his assassination, by the Islam community he’d ”betrayed,” is imminent. As Washington plays it, Malcolm’s despair is less over the prospect of his death than it is over the thought of life in a world that could set his own brothers against him. By the end of the film, there is nothing left of Malcolm: He has been spiritually destroyed. With Malcolm X, Lee has created a galvanizing political tragedy, the story of a leader who, through his very perception and daring, recognized that death — and only death — would be his final evolution. A