By Ken Tucker
Updated January 28, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

There’s a thoroughness and brisk honesty in the latest edition of The American Experience, malcolm x: make it plain (PBS, Jan. 26, 8-10:30 p.m.) that make its two-and-a-half hours zip by. Avoiding the life-of-a-saint tone that characterized much of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X movie, this documentary is a careful exploration of Malcolm’s life and thought, directed, co-produced and co-written by Orlando Bagwell. Bagwell, who also worked on two of PBS’ most notable recent series, The Great Depression and Eyes on the Prize, takes care to place Malcolm’s political leadership in a context that includes not only the by-now-familiar run through his time spent as the zoot-suited hustler Detroit Red, but also a look at his childhood as the son of Earl Little, a Michigan minister and organizer for the black-nationalist Marcus Garvey Movement. The complexity and contradictions of Malcolm’s philosophy are discussed and debated by diverse interview subjects, ranging from Malcolm’s brothers to the New York police officer who infiltrated Malcolm’s Nation of Islam chapter in the hope of discrediting him. Make It Plain has all the virtues of a first- rate piece of journalism, presenting all sides to allow a viewer to form a fresh opinion of a figure obscured by fame. A