The film begins with a lesser known aspect of Malcolm, and that is his time as a small time criminal, who commits crimes does drugs, and sleeps with a white woman. This early section is not particularly great, and Washington is hindered by director Spike Lee's overuse of style in these early scenes, such as having Malcolm dress in an over the top fashion, as well have Washington act in a rather over the top fashion especially when he and Lee as Malcolm's friend Shorty walk down the street, or go to a dance where Lee's participates in an overly long self-indulgent dance scene. When the style tones down finally I will admit Washington finally has a better chance at showing a better more developed characterization. I can't say I was overly impressed by these moments either because he frankly does nothing to suggest the future Malcolm whatsoever, which is not necessarily a problem, but he also frankly plays the part in a too calculated fashion that fails to real enforce the idea of Malcolm being a very confused and future less young man. Malcolm frankly is too confidant as a criminal, since Lee romanticizes even this aspect of Malcolm's life to an unneeded extent.
Washington really failed to impress me at all in this first third of Malcolm's life, and I almost felt he was giving a bit of a similar performance he would later do once again in Training Day, though to be fair Washington is very much fulfilling Lee's strange choices during this portion of the film. Well so he goes to prison and here Washington is a bit more effective showing the complete confusion he has in prison, and has the right emotional intensity showing the pain he has due to the result of his aimless life. Well he finds a point through a follower of the brotherhood of Islam who convinces him to take the path set out by Elijah Muhammad. This transformation of Malcolm's should be a place for Washington to shine, but I think the way Lee directs the sequence it really does not allow Washington to do anything impressive with his performance. He does it with too much narration, and again in an oddly distant fashion in which Washington just is not allowed the proper time, or the right scenes to make his transformation compelling.
Well soon afterward he gets out of jail and acts as one of the most loyal followers of Elijah Muhammad and preaches his word in many ways, and in many fashions. Washington is good in doing the Malcolm X speeches, and has the right manner and passion in his speeches. He is properly consistent and effective and is believable in the role. I think he is quite interesting in his way of showing the way Malcolm changes his way in the different venues, and in the speech making part of Malcolm he is effective. Malcolm goes under one more transformation into believing that Elijah Muhammed's ideas were wrong as well. This is another transformation that is too fast, and not invested enough into by Lee as a director, unfortunately leaving Washington trying his best but unfortunately he is not given the right material. For an example his pilgrimage to Mecca is suppose to be a big transforming moment for Malcolm but Lee is more concerned with large shots of various landmarks than of Malcolm transformation, leaving that in the hands of just the voice over, leaving Washington with basically nothing to do but that voice over.
Finally Washington is again effective in the final moments of Malcolm's life showing the exasperation, dread, but along with a still a passion for his cause quite well. Unfortunately Washington gets to spend little time with this aspect of Malcolm but he is good in these final moments. On a whole though this performance just never felt like a complete portrayal of the life of a man due to always being just used by the director in a rather broad fashion not allowing for enough nuance to Malcolm's overall portrayal. Washington performance is mostly believable and effective enough, he is quite good most of the time besides the beginning and does fulfill most of the requirements of this depiction of Malcolm X. The problem though for Washington was the was Malcolm's life was directed, just did not allow for an outstanding performance which it could have been, and Washington probably could have done more with a more performance driven film.