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To What Extent Is Spike Lee’s 1992 Biopic, ‘Malcolm X’ A Reliable Historical Source?


Spike Lee’s ‘Malcolm X’ has been considered one of the greatest biopics ever made, the film is extraordinary in its depiction of historical accuracy as well as the form of realism that spike lee cherished (Marcus, 2001). The quasi-documentary style of the movie shows the making of Malcolm X as an American. The present essay intends to evaluate the reliability of historical events presented in Malcolm X and to decide whether Malcolm X is reliable historical source in order to know about the life and events that led to his assassination in 1965.


“The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which Lee used as the primary source, was written by Alex Haley and was based on journals, letters written by Malcolm X, and newspapers. The movie is divided into three parts: the early days of his life in Boston and Harlem, the years he spent in jail, where the changing phase occurred, and finally, the years of his life as an activist, his relationship with the Nation of Islam that resulted in his assassination on 21 February 1965. As far as the depiction of Malcolm X’s family is concerned, especially his brothers and his half-sister Ella, who funded his pilgrimage to Mecca, Lee replaced his brothers with fictional characters while removing the character of Ella altogether in the movie. On the contrary, Lee seems daring to add moments of controversy, like Malcolm X’s remark on the death of JFK as a “chicken coming home to the roost.” The reliability of Malcolm X comes from the use of original grainy footage in the movie. For instance, the image of the American flag burning in the Rodney King Incident and the daring speeches of Malcolm X that directly charged white Americans are depicted accurately and dramatically by Denzel Washington as they were made by Malcolm X (Clark, 2015).

As mentioned above, Lee’s selection of removing the siblings from the as well as making some changes in the prison scenes do suggest unreliability if we are to consider Malcolm X as a historical source because, according to some historians, it was not Baines who inspired him to convert to Nation of Islam but his siblings half-sister Ella, Philbert, and Reginald. Also, his real-life prison buddy was not Baines but Bimbi, who, according to historians, introduced him to literature rather than religion (Clark, (2015). In fact, it was his brother who introduced him to NOI, and even after he left NOI, his brother remained a member of NOI. The movie also removes the character of Muhammad Ali, a friend of Malcolm X (Rule, 1992). According to Lee, the primary concern was to highlight the transformation of the many Malcolms because by merging these different phases, one can approach Malcolm X. He also points out the inherent instabilities of regarding the representation of Malcolm X by referring to the different varieties of Malcolm X depending on their personal view. Spike Lee also claims his independent research regarding Malcolm X, apart from the primary source mentioned above. According to him Paul Lee is a perceptive scholar on the life of Malcolm x and he worked as technical advisor on the film (Rule, 1992). The depiction of his death is accurately depicted according to the reports provided by the FBI (Malcolm X: The Assassination., 1994).


As we have seen so far, despite its removal of many characters and some events, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X never ceases to amaze the audience; many well-known critics of the time, including Roger Ebert, gave it the maximum due to its use of historical events in an artistic form to give one the sense documentary (Ebert, 1992). Some events that the movie depicted are accurate and powerful, like Malcolm X. Hence, the movie is an accurate depiction of the events to a great extent.


Clark, A. (2015). Malcolm X: Spike Lee’s biopic is still absolutely necessary. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 11 Apr. 2018].

Ebert, R. (1992). Malcolm X Movie Review & Film Summary (1992) | Roger Ebert. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 Apr. 2018].

King, D., 2003. Americans in the Dark?—Recent Hollywood Representations of the Nation’s History. Government and Opposition, 38(2), pp.163-180.

Malcolm X. (1992). [film] Directed by S. Lee. Hollywood: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks.

Malcolm X: The Assassination. (1994). The Journal of American History, 80(4), p.1540.

Marcus, A.S., Stoddard, J.D., Metzger, S.A. and Paxton, R.J., 2010. Teaching history with film: Strategies for secondary social studies. Routledge.

Reynolds, M., 2010. How to Analyze the Films of Spike Lee. ABDO Publishing Company.

Rule, S. (1992). FILM; Malcolm X: The Facts, the Fictions, the Film. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 Apr. 2018].

Stubbs, J., 2013. Historical film: A critical introduction. Bloomsbury Publishing.

X, M., & HALEY, A. (1973). The autobiography of Malcolm X.



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