Spike Lee struggled mightily to get 'Malcolm X' made, financially and artistically. But when all was said and done, he produced an epic blockbuster and a definite treatment of the man's life.
There's great differences between the two as well, but to me Lee has many things in common with Oliver Stone. Both of them seem to have been born to make films. Both of them are uncompromising in bringing their artistic (and moral) vision to the screen, and neither will try to seduce the public by catering to their tastes. Both present their own interpretation of facts without apology. (For example, from what I've read it's not certain that Malcolm's father was actually killed by Klansmen. But Lee isn't in the same league as Stone when it comes to playing fast and loose with the "truth.") Stone even ends his movie 'Nixon' in a similar way to 'Malcolm X,' with footage of real-life figures blended in, though I'm not accusing Stone of imitation.
This movie has an epic sweep and scope and as a director Lee is up to the challenge. He is served well by being able to direct in several styles, one of which is almost cartoonish: witness the scene where Malcolm (Denzel Washington) and Shorty (played by Lee himself) go stepping out at the Roseland Ballroom, resplendent in their zoot suits. Some comic relief is welcome at times because otherwise the serious, heavy message of the picture might be overwhelming. For instance, the movie opens with a full-screen shot of an American flag while we hear a voice-over of one of Malcolm's most rousing, or inflammatory speeches, depending on how you look at it ("I accuse the white man of being the greatest murderer on the planet!") The flag begins to burn and eventually forms a flaming 'X' as the fiery rhetoric continues. But if you haven't been scared away, the next scene shows the young man Malcolm Little in a funny situation, having his hair straightened by a concoction that threatens to burn off his scalp.
Denzel Washington has won beaucoups of rightly-deserved accolades for his amazing performance in the title role. If you've ever heard or seen Malcolm X's speaking, you will be astounded at the similarities in tone and cadence. The illusion is so real one may not recognize that real archival footage of Malcolm is used late in the film. But this is not a case of style over substance here. Between Washington's talent and Lee's directing and screenwriting, an unforgettable character emerges. The film boasts other fine performances by Al Freeman, Jr. (especially good as Elijah Muhammad, a controversial figure in society, and eventually to Malcolm himself), Delroy Lindo, Albert Hall, Kate Vernon, Ernest Thomas and many others in its large cast.
It's clear that Lee doesn't care for the Motion Picture Academy and they don't particularly care for him. But the snubbing he and his picture got at Oscar time would be comparable to Richard Attenborough and 'Ghandi' not being nominated the year that film was made. Ordinarily, one would think this film is the kind of production Hollywood loves to honor. But Academy Award nominations or not, the film 'Malcolm X' is like the man himself: impossible to ignore.