Washington never relaxes, not even in a paint-by-numbers programmer like “The Equalizer 2.” But in “Malcolm X,” he’s a taut wire in every scene. Whether he’s a numbers-running hoodlum or a highly educated religious leader, he’s primed to snap. The tension of Malcolm’s existence, his righteous fury and compassion for his people, is almost ungovernable. For a brief time, he has a stirring command of his adherents, but the weight of his responsibility and the dawning knowledge that his mentor, Elijah Muhammad, is a fraud leaves him trapped. He never backs off his principles, even as the world closes in on him. His long, lonely walk to the Audubon Ballroom, where he will be murdered, is especially brutal because all he’s done, as far as the movie is concerned, is attend to the needs of his followers. Washington accesses that isolation with a haunting stillness.

The carousing, macho posturing, and soaring oratory come easily to Washington. We’d follow him off a cliff. It’s the quietude, the sorrow that Malcolm can’t bring himself to express because he can only be a rock to his people — that guts us. The aftermath of the assassination, the weeping and wailing in that nearly empty ballroom, the profound loss of a righteous seeker who was mid-metamorphosis … it just wipes you out. 

Washington took us on a remarkable journey. It’s one thing to read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (and that’s a thing you must do), but to see how a person can find not only salvation in faith and education, but purpose in the blending of the two is a gift. Sometimes I think “Malcolm X” is the greatest of all American movies, and it would not be thus without Washington. I’ve seen superb portrayals of Malcolm (from Mario Van Peebles, Jason Delane, and Kingsley Ben-Adir), but the fullness of Washington’s performance is unmatched. It’s the fourth quarter and overtime. It’s the entirety of the human experience in three hours. It’s the greatest feat of acting I’ve ever seen.