The film shows a white student girl who offers her help to Malcolm X and then gets rudely denied. It's actually based on a real-life event about which after leaving NOI Malcolm X regrets saying "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 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 the Spring of 1992, a few months before Malcolm X was released in theatres. 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.
In the scene at the end of the film where Nelson Mandela addresses the classroom of South African, he is quoting a speech of Malcolm X's directly. However, he refused to repeat the last four words of Malcolm's speech "by any means necessary", so Spike Lee instead inserted black and white footage of Malcolm saying it himself. The line originated in Jean-Paul Sartre's play 'Les Mains Sales' ("Dirty Hands").
The film's estimated budget was $34 million. Budget battles plagued the production from the beginning. Initially, director Spike Lee had requested $33 million for the film, a reasonable sum considering the size and scope of the project but far greater than his previous budgets. Additionally, his five previous films combined grossed less than $100 million domestically. As a result of this (and the studio's reluctance to fund black-themed material), Warner Bros. only offered $20 million for a two-hour and 15-minute film, plus an additional $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, such as Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, and Bill Cosby to regain control of his embattled 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.
At one point Oliver Stone expressed interest in directing this project as a follow-up to JFK (1991); Stone's first choice was Denzel Washington, who went on to star in the title role when Spike Lee came on board as director.
James Baldwin's original screenplay for this film has been published, under the title "One Day When I Was Lost." It begins with Malcolm driving to the Audobon Theater, and then telling his life through flashbacks.
In all actuality there was never a Bro. Banes that led Malcolm X to the Nation Of Islam. He is a fictional character. Malcolm X states in his Autobiography that he was led to the Nation of Islam by his brother and sister by way of letters.
The film's producer, Marvin Worth, had actually known Malcolm X in real life. This was instrumental in him acquiring the rights to tell Malcolm X's story in 1967, though it would take over 20 years for him to achieve that. In that time, 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 one of the scripts. When Spike Lee came on board, he read all the different scripts and opted for the first one written by James Baldwin.
Malcolm X once worked as a porter on the railroad as shown in the movie. Researchers for the film needed to find some equipment that was accurate to the time period when Malcolm worked for the New Haven Railroad. The Valley Railroad in Essex, CT was contacted for information on a Pullman car by name (Great Republic). Valley RR had one of the actual coaches that Malcolm X once worked on. From there they got involved with the VRR to do shooting in Essex, CT and also took a number of the coaches down to New York to do filming in the city setting. The coach Great Republic had been in the process of being restored, as the Valley RR had just obtained it from a train collector in Stonington, CT that had it in his back yard for decades. This coach that Malcolm once worked on, is now proudly serving as the First Class Parlor car on the Essex Steam Train
James Baldwin's script was written over the space of two years, and completed after co-writer Arnold Perl death in 1971. Spike Lee shares on screen credit with the late Perl as Baldwin's family asked that his name not be linked with the film.
The dancing scenes were consulted by Frankie Manning. He is considered an ambassador of Lindy-hop, also called the Jitterbug, the dance performed in the film. The song being played by the band is "Flying Home" originally composed by Lionel Hampton.