Malcolm Little is born into a poor household in rural Michigan to a Caribbean mother and African-American father. When Malcolm is a young boy, their house is burnt down and his father, an activist for black rights, is killed by a chapter of the Black Legion. His death is falsely registered as a suicide and the family receives no compensation. Malcolm’s mother’s mental state deteriorates and she is admitted to a mental institution. Malcolm and his siblings are put into protective care. Malcolm performs well in school and dreams of being a lawyer, but is discriminated against by his teachers.
In 1944, Malcolm, now a teenager, lives in Boston. He goes to a nightclub with his friend Shorty and girlfriend Laura. He catches the attention of the white Sophia, and the two begin to date. Malcolm gets a job as railroad worker and travels to Harlem with Sophia. At a bar, he meets “West Indian” Archie, a gangster who runs a local numbers game. The two become friends and start co-operating an illegal numbers racket. One night at a club, Malcolm bets on a series of numbers, one of which is a winner; however Archie disputes that Malcolm had selected the winning number, denying him a large sum of money. A conflict ensues between the two and Malcolm returns to Boston after an attempt on his life. Malcolm reconnects with Shorty and meets Rudy and another girl named Peg. The four delinquents decide to start performing robberies to earn some money.
By 1946, the group has accrued a large amount of money from thievery. However, they are later arrested. The two girls are sentenced to two years as first offenders in connection with the robberies, while Shorty and Malcolm are sentenced to 8-10 years in jail. While incarcerated, Malcolm meets Baines, a member of the Nation of Islam, who directs him to the teachings of the group’s leader Elijah Muhammad. He is initially cold towards the preachings, but later grows interested in the Muslim religion and lifestyle that is promoted by the group. Malcolm begins to resent white people for their maltreatment of his race. Malcolm is paroled from prison in 1952 after serving six years, and travels to the Nation of Islam’s headquarters in Chicago. There, he meets Muhammad, who instructs Malcolm to remove his “Little” surname and replace it with “X”, which is symbolic of his lost African surname that was taken from him by white people; he is rechristened as “Malcolm X”.
Malcolm returns to Harlem and begins to preach the Nation’s message. Over time, his speeches gather large crowds of onlookers who protest African-American mistreatment. Malcolm proposes ideas such as African-American separation from white Americans. In 1958, Malcolm meets nurse Betty Sanders. The two begin dating, quickly marry and become the parents of four daughters. Several years later, Malcolm is now in a high position as the spokesperson of the Nation of Islam.
After US President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in November 1963, Malcolm comments that his assassination was the product of the white violence that has been prevalent in America since its founding: he compares the killing to “the chickens coming home to roost.” This statement greatly damages Malcolm’s reputation and he is informed by Muhammad that he is being suspended as the Nation’s figurehead for 90 days. Seeing this as a betrayal, Malcolm loses faith in the organization. In early 1964, Malcolm goes on a pilgrimage to Mecca where he finds that Muslims come from all cultures, including white. Malcolm publicly announces that he will no longer preach African-American separation and begins his own organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which teaches tolerance instead of protest. He also legally changes his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. This action publicly exiles him from the Nation of Islam. He is subsequently sent several death threats by members of the Nation and his house is firebombed in early 1965.
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm prepares to speak before a crowd at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem before he is shot several times by disciples of the Nation of Islam. One of the shooters, Thomas Hagan, is shot in the leg by one of Malcolm’s bodyguards and dragged into a furious crowd, who proceed to beat him. Malcolm is transported to a hospital, but he is pronounced dead on arrival.
The film concludes with a series of clips showing the aftermath of Malcolm’s death. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers a eulogy to Malcolm, and Ossie Davis recites a speech at Malcolm’s funeral. Nelson Mandela delivers a speech to a school, quoting an excerpt from one of Malcolm’s speeches.