In the film, a white student offers her help to Malcolm X, who rudely declines. The scene is based on a real-life event, and Malcolm regretted it after he left the Nation of Islam. He said "Brother, remember the time that white college girl came into the restaurant, the one who wanted to help the [Black] Muslims and the whites get together, and I told her there wasn't a ghost of a chance and she went away crying? Well, I've lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent, I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. I did many things as a [Black] Muslim that I'm sorry for now. I was a zombie then, like all [Black] Muslims. I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction, and told to march. Well, I guess a man's entitled to make a fool of himself if he's ready to pay the cost. It cost me 12 years.".
The first non-documentary film that was given permission to film in Mecca. The film's second unit filmed all the scenes at Mecca. Spike Lee did not accompany them because he is not a Muslim; only Muslims are allowed to enter Mecca.
The video at the opening speech is the beating of Rodney King, a taxi driver who became famous after his violent arrest by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department. He was videotaped by a bystander, George Holliday. The incident raised a public outcry among people who believed it was racially motivated. The subsequent trial of the police officers involved in the beating took place in spring of 1992, a few months before Malcolm X was released in theaters. The acquittal of the police officers sparked the famous Los Angeles riots which took place over several days at the end of April and the beginning of May of that year.
At the end of the film, when Nelson Mandela addresses a South African classroom of, he quotes a Malcolm X speech directly. He refused to repeat the last four words, "by any means necessary", so Spike Lee inserted black and white footage of Malcolm saying it himself. The line originated in Jean-Paul Sartre's play "Les Mains Sales" ("Dirty Hands").
Initially, Spike Lee requested $33 million for the film, a reasonable sum considering its size and scope, but much more than his previous budgets. Because Lee's five previous films combined had grossed less than $100 million domestically (and reluctance to fund black-themed material), Warner Bros. offered $20 million for a two-hour 15-minute film, plus $8 million from Largo Entertainment for the foreign rights. When the film went $5 million over budget, Lee kicked in most of his salary, but failed to keep the financiers from shutting down post-production. Lee went public with his battles and raised funds from celebrity friends, including Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and Bill Cosby to regain control of the project. Warner eventually kicked in more funds after a positive screening of a rough cut.
Scenes of the Kennedy assassination are taken from JFK (1991). Vincent D'Onofrio is credited as playing Bill Newman in the footage taken from JFK. The stand-ins who played the Kennedys and the Connallys in JFK are also credited in this film.
Brother Baines, who leads Malcolm X to the Nation of Islam, is a fictional character. In his autobiography, Malcolm X says he was led to the Nation of Islam through letters from by his brother and sister.
The film's producer, Marvin Worth, knew Malcolm X in real life. Their friendship played a huge role in Worth acquiring the rights to tell Malcolm X's story in 1967, even though that took over 20 years. In the meantime, Worth produced his own Oscar-nominated documentary on the subject, and commissioned numerous scripts, including one by David Mamet. At one point, Eddie Murphy was interested in a script. When Spike Lee came on board, he read all the different scripts and opted for the first one, written by James Baldwin.
Malcolm X worked as a porter on the New Haven Railroad. When researchers for the film contacted the Valley Railroad in Essex, Connecticut, looking for period rail equipment, they discovered that the railroad had a coach that Malcolm X once worked on. It had just been obtained it from a train collector in Stonington, Connecticut, who would had it in his backyard for decades, and was being remodeled. The producers worked with the VRR to shoot some scenes in Essex, Connecticut, and took a number of coaches to New York for filming. The coach, Great Republic, is now the First Class Parlor car on the Essex Steam Train.
James Baldwin's script was written over of two years, and completed after co-writer Arnold Perl's death in 1971. Baldwin's family asked that his name be removed, so Spike Lee shares on-screen credit with the late Perl.
James Baldwin's original screenplay has been published, under the title "One Day When I Was Lost". It begins with Malcolm X driving to the Audobon Theater, then telling his life story through flashbacks.