Any worries that Spike Lee—handed big-studio dollars and the staid biopic genre—would soften his style for Malcom X were mollified with one of the movie’s opening images: an American flag burning in on itself until it forms the shape of an “X.” Combine that visual audacity with Denzel Washington’s deeply humane portrait of Malcolm Little—con man turned con turned Nation of Islam spokesperson turned Nation/FBI pariah—and you have a life story told as the African-American story: one of pride, perseverance, and always—at the end of the day—punishment. Washington has never been better, capturing the greatly varied phases of Malcolm’s personality while always giving us a full sense of a single man: sharp, smart, with a quick smile but also a simmering, righteous anger. The speeches here—particularly during the Nation of Islam era—are electric, punctuated by Lee’s active camera and Barry Alexander Brown’s incisive edits. And the “double dolly” shot—a favorite technique of Lee’s—as Malcolm approaches the Audubon Ballroom theater, where he would be assassinated, may be the most trenchant flourish in a filmmaking career full of them. Given the keys to the Hollywood kingdom with Malcolm X, Lee both met its tony standards and set it on fire. More power to him.