Writer-director Spike Lee's epic portrayal of the life and times of the slain civil rights leader Malcolm X begins with the cross-cut imagery of the police beating of black motorist Rodney King juxtaposed with an American flag burning into the shape of the letter X. When the film's narrative begins moments later, it jumps back to World War II-era Boston, where Malcolm Little (Denzel Washington) is making his living as a hustler.
The son of a Baptist preacher who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, Little was raised by foster parents after his mother was deemed clinically insane; as an adult, he turned to a life of crime, which leads to his imprisonment on burglary charges.
In jail, Little receives epiphany in the form of an introduction to Islam; he is especially taken with the lessons of Elijah Mohammed, who comes to him in a vision.
Adopting the name 'Malcolm X' as a rejection of the 'Little' surname (given his family by white slave owners), he meets the real Elijah Mohammed (Al Freeman, Jr.) upon exiting prison, and begins work as a spokesman for the Nation of Islam.
Marriage to a Muslim nurse named Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett) follows, after which X spearheads a well-attended march on a Harlem hospital housing a Muslim recovering from an episode of police brutality. The march's success helps elevate X to the position of Islam's national spokesperson.
There is dissension in the ranks, however, and soon X is targeted for assassination by other Nation leaders; even Elijah Mohammed fears Malcolm's growing influence.
After getting wind of the murder plot, X leaves the Nation of Islam, embarking on a pilgrimage to Mecca that proves revelatory; renouncing his separatist beliefs, his oratories begin embracing all races and cultures. During a 1965 speech, Malcolm X is shot and killed, reportedly by Nation of Islam members.