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.".
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 his brother and sister.
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.
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.
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.
There were concerns and complaints from Malcolm X "purists" when Denzel Washington was cast in the title role. They pointed out ironically that Washington's skin tone was too dark to accurately portray Malcolm who had lighter skin with freckles. Another complaint was Washington's height of only 6'1" as compared to that of Malcolm X which was 6'4"
The scene where Betty Shabazz argues with Malcolm about his misplaced loyalties to Elijah Muhammad and The Nation Of Islam were contrived mostly to add dramatic effect to the film . The real life Shabazz said the scene was inaccurate as she and Malcolm never argued or raised their voices to one another and that she supported her husband at every turn.
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.
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 from a train collector in Stonington, Connecticut, who 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.
To prepare for his role, Denzel Washington avoided eating pork, attended Fruit of Islam classes and learned to Lindy Hop. He was so in-character that he even knew which pair of glasses Malcolm was wearing on a particular day.
Looking back on the experience of making the film and the pressure he faced to produce an accurate film, Spike Lee jokingly stated on the DVD's audio commentary that when the film was released, he and Denzel Washington had their passports handy in case they needed to flee the country.
A month before the film was released, Spike Lee asked that media outlets send black journalists to interview him. The request proved controversial. While it was common practice for celebrities to pick interviewers who were known to be sympathetic to them, it was the first time in many years in which race had been used as a qualification. Lee clarified that he was not barring white interviewers from interviewing him, but that he felt, given the subject matter of the film, that black writers have "more insight about Malcolm than white writers." The request was turned down by the Los Angeles Times, but several others agreed including Premiere magazine, Vogue, Interview and Rolling Stone. The Los Angeles Times explained they did not give writer approval. The editor of Premiere noted that the request created internal discussions that resulted in changes at the magazine: "Had we had a history of putting a lot of black writers on stories about the movie industry we'd be in a stronger position. But we didn't. It was an interesting challenge he laid down. It caused some personnel changes. We've hired a black writer and a black editor."
Spike Lee encountered difficulty in securing a sufficient budget. Lee told Warner Bros. and the bond company that a budget of over US$30 million was necessary; the studio disagreed and offered a lower amount. Following advice from fellow director Francis Ford Coppola, Lee got "the movie company pregnant": taking the movie far enough along into actual production to attempt to force the studio to increase the budget. The film, initially budgeted at $28 million, climbed to nearly $33 million. Lee contributed $2 million of his own $3 million salary. Completion Bond Company, which assumed financial control in January 1992, refused to approve any more expenditures; in addition, the studio and bond company instructed Lee that the film could be no longer than two hours, fifteen minutes in length. The resulting conflict caused the project to be shut down in post-production. The film was saved by the financial intervention of prominent black Americans, some of whom appear in the film: Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Janet Jackson, Prince, and Peggy Cooper Cafritz, founder of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Their contributions were made as donations; as Lee noted: "This is not a loan. They are not investing in the film. These are black folks with some money who came to the rescue of the movie. As a result, this film will be my version. Not the bond company's version, not Warner Brothers'. I will do the film the way it ought to be, and it will be over three hours." The actions of such prominent members of the African American community giving their money helped finish the project as Lee envisioned it.
Soon after Spike Lee was announced as the director and before its release, the film received criticism by black nationalists and members of the United Front to Preserve the Legacy of Malcolm X, headed by poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, who were worried about how Lee would portray Malcolm X. One protest in Harlem drew over 200 people. Some based their opinion on dislike of Lee's previous films; others were concerned that he would focus on Malcolm X's life before he converted to Islam. Baraka bluntly accused Spike Lee of being a "Buppie", stating "We will not let Malcolm X's life be trashed to make middle-class Negroes sleep easier", compelling others to write the director and warn him "not to mess up Malcolm's life." Some, including Lee himself, noted the irony that many of the arguments they made against him mirrored those made against Norman Jewison.
This is the first non-documentary, and the first American film, to be given permission to film in Mecca (or within the Haram Sharif). A second unit film crew was hired to film in Mecca because non-Muslims, such as Spike Lee, are not allowed inside the city. Lee fought very hard to get filming in Mecca but Warner Bros. initially refused to put up the money for location shooting. New Jersey was considered for filming the Mecca segments. In the end, Lee got money and permission together for filming in Mecca.
When Denzel Washington took the role of Malcolm X in the play, When the Chickens Come Home to Roost, which dealt with the relationship between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, he admitted he knew little about Malcolm X and had not yet read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Washington prepared by reading books and articles by and about Malcolm X and went over hours of tape and film footage of speeches. The play opened in 1981 and earned Washington a warm review by Frank Rich, who was at the time the chief theater critic of The New York Times. Upon being cast in the film, he interviewed people who knew Malcolm X, among them Betty Shabazz and two of his brothers. Although they had different upbringings, Washington tried to focus on what he had in common with his character: Washington was close to Malcolm X's age when he was assassinated, both men were from large families, both of their fathers were ministers, and both were raised primarily by their mothers.
At one point it was unclear whether the production would get the rights to use Malcolm X's speeches. Spike Lee wrote that making the movie without the speeches would be comparable to making an Elvis biopic without any Elvis songs.
Roger Guinver Smith has a small role as an accomplice of Malcolm during his criminal days. Smith played "Smiley," a man selling photographs of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Do The Right Thing (1989)
Denzel Washington (Malcolm X) and another actor in the film, Keith Randolph Smith went on to star in the New York revival of "Fences" with Viola Davis. Washington played Troy Maxon; Smith was his understudy.