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No Other Actor Can Do What Denzel Washington Does in ‘Malcolm X’

Washington’s triumphant performance in Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic is a perfect representation of the tightrope actors must walk when playing an iconic figure.
Denzel Washington Malcolm X
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on February 27th, 2021

Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine the Academy Award-nominated performance given by Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X.

When we talk about an actor of Denzel Washington’s caliber, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly why he’s so good. With every role he tackles, whether it’s as a defiant soldier in Glory or a prejudiced lawyer in Philadelphia, he just has a natural presence that resonates with audiences. He has the “it factor” that makes it impossible for us to tear our eyes away from him.

You could argue that’s partly due to Washington’s status as a Hollywood sex symbol, but it’s more than just his magnetism that has given his career longevity. What makes his work so enrapturing is you can see the attention to detail he builds into a multilayered performance like the one he gives in Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic Malcolm X. Washington doesn’t rely on flashy or grueling acting techniques. He takes a quiet approach, informed by countless hours of research, to embody the very spirit of each character he plays.

Washington’s meticulous research is paramount to his portrayal of Malcolm X. His exploration of the iconic figure actually began eleven years earlier, in a 1981 off-Broadway play called When the Chickens Come Home to Roost. Written by Laurence Holder, the two-person show (clips of which you can watch online) is a prolonged conversation between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. However unrefined his performance appears compared to the film, you can still clearly see the Malcolm he’d later become on screen. It’s in the way he looks and speaks, capturing with pitch-perfect accuracy the cadence of Malcolm’s real voice. Most importantly, this performance gave Washington a stable foundation to continue building upon when he revisited the role a decade later.

All actors walk a tightrope when portraying a real person, especially an iconic figure such as Malcolm X. You must stay true to the person you’re playing while also meeting the demands of a script that may alter – however slightly – the character’s true life. In Lee’s film, Malcolm is introduced to Islam in jail by another convict, yet in real-life his introduction to the religion came from his brother Reginald and half-sister Ella. Malcolm’s siblings, especially Ella, had a profound impact on his life but are conspicuously absent from the film. What may seem like a minor omission can create waves in an actor’s process, with Washington having to create new emotional touchstones that are divorced from Malcolm’s actual experiences.

Where the real Malcolm could look to his family when reflecting on his relationship to Islam, Washington had to build that connection with a composite character written for the film. Due to these discrepancies between reality and fiction, his performance becomes a patchwork of ideas, strung together to create a character that is as faithful to the real Malcolm X as possible, while also existing within the screenplay’s tweaked origin story.

An actor’s research is often strictly used to provide context for a character’s history; a way to fill yourself with their memories so you can inhabit them in a truthful, authentic way. But Washington used his research to majorly inform his character’s physicality, too. With hours of footage of Malcolm’s speeches and interviews at his disposal, he was able to emulate with precision the way Malcolm carried himself and gestured, like the forefinger pressed to the jaw that we see on the film’s poster. He wasn’t just playing Malcolm; Washington was practically becoming him.

And, in a way, he literally did. Washington’s research allowed him to channel Malcolm X in such a way that he was able to give unscripted speeches in-character, continuing well after the cameras ran out of film. As Spike Lee said in an interview:

“All the speeches in the film were Malcolm’s actual speeches. We did the research. So we’re doing this one speech, I had my script in front of me, I’m looking at Denzel, and I’m also looking at the monitor. He’s killing it. So as I’m reading the script along with Denzel and I see that well, the speech is over, I’m going to call cut. But he keeps going, and he kept going for another five minutes until finally, the film ran out of the magazine. And the stuff he said was better than Malcolm’s words. So I finally called cut and I told Denzel, ‘That was great, but where did that come from? I mean, you went on five minutes after what was scripted.’ And he was like, ‘I don’t know.’”

This isn’t something just any actor can do. Washington has an almost preternatural ability to become Malcolm X. His preparation allows him to be so in the moment that Malcolm’s words can flow through him naturally, resulting in his character’s thoughts and emotions entwining with his own. If it all sounds a little mystical, that’s because it kind of is. But it’s an acting magic trick that Washington pulls off effortlessly.

In a career defined by award-winning roles, Malcolm X stands out as a wholly unique performance in Washington’s filmography. The range of emotions he experiences and expresses have never been more dynamic. As we follow Malcolm’s life, reinventing himself again and again, we watch Washington switch emotions seamlessly from moment to moment, scene to scene. He’s truly chilling when Malcolm returns to Boston and flexes his dominance in a game of Russian Roulette, only to show us later in the film a character who is heartbreaking in how happy he is. Seeing Malcolm filled with humor and joy is why the film has helped break the impression many had in their heads of the man.

Washington’s performance in Malcolm X is one that deconstructs the complicated legacy history has painted of the emblematic figure. With a quiet approach to building a character that is practically Shakespearean in its scope, he’s crafted a role that is meant to honor, and humanize, someone who has been repeatedly misunderstood over the last five decades. Malcolm X was a firebrand who lit a fuse that helped Black communities have a voice during a time of unrepentant aggression towards people of color, and in the hands of Washington, we come to understand who the legend really was. As he told the New York Times:

“I’m not Malcolm X, but the same God that moved Malcolm X can move me. This is a story about the evolution of a man. It’s a spiritual, philosophical, political evolution. My prayer is to illustrate that and have that be some kind of a healing for people. Some who knew Malcolm want to put him on a pedestal, but that’s not changing anything. We want to reach that young person who is down and out, who may be wearing the X but doesn’t really understand what it means or what this man stood for.”

Washington’s work in Malcolm X has helped ensure that the icon’s legacy isn’t black and white, but painted in the true spectrum of who he was, not just who he was believed to be. For all intents and purposes, Washington really does become Malcolm X. Sure, an actor can’t literally become their character, but this performance proves that if anyone is ever going to pull off that impossible feat, it’s going to be Denzel Washington.

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Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)