The big, ambitious, fascinating Malcolm X is Spike Lee's first foray into the epic mode, and he takes hold of the form with verve and confidence. Its 3-hour 21-minute running time passes swiftly, with only a few lulls. In many respects, it's Lee's most conventional movie, the one that rests most securely within the highly polished conventions of Hollywood big-budget film biographies. But unlike most epics, it's impossible to come away from "Malcolm X" with one simple, singular impression: there are as many movies and styles within it as there were aspects of Malcolm's constantly evolving character.

He went by many names: born Malcolm Little; dubbed Red, for the color of his hair, during his numbers-running, zoot-suited criminal years in Boston and Harlem; called Satan during the early part of his 6 1/2 -year prison stint; then Malcolm X, his Black Muslim name, and finally, after his break with Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam, he called himself El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. It was a life forged by extremities of experience, and Lee and his brilliant cinematographer Ernest Dickerson don't try to make it seamless; they accentuate the radical disjunctions of Malcolm's odyssey by finding a distinct visual style for each of the key episodes of his life.

This is the story of the self-creation of a fiercely eloquent spokesman for a new black consciousness, whose message of pride and self-determination--"by any means necessary"--attained mythical dimensions after his assassination in the Audubon Ballroom in 1965. There's no question that Lee reveres the man. The double codas that end the film-Ossie Davis's stirring eulogy ("our own black shining Prince"), heard over photos and film of the real Malcolm, and an excursion to Soweto that features Nelson Mandela quoting Malcolm's words-are pure hagiography. But there's more to Lee's vision than inspirational piety. The showman in Lee knows we need to be entertained, or he wouldn't devote more than a third of his movie to Malcolm's wild early years, full of dance halls and jazz, cocaine and blondes, burglaries and Russian roulette. And the artist in Lee wants to give us the man as well as the myth-the inner evolution that is Malcolm's real and haunting story.

With all the passionate argument over Malcolm's politics, it's easy to forget that his is a story of religious conversion: first to the gospel according to Elijah Muhammad, later to a more traditional embrace of Islam. One of the many Malcolms we see in Denzel Washington's quietly majestic performance is a fundamentalist, monklike in his disavowal of material and sensual pleasures. He is a man with an almost childlike need to believe; the movie forces one to consider the unlikely kinship between this '60s revolutionary and the born-again believers of today's religious right.

As written by Arnold Perl and Lee (and, uncredited, James Baldwin), based on "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" as told to Alex Haley, the movie can also be read as the story of a man in continual search of a father. There's enormous pathos in his quest, as each of his paternal surrogates betrays him, first his patron in crime, the West Indian Archie (a great performance by Delroy Lindo), then his prison mentor Baines (a composite character, played by Albert Hall) and finally his god, Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.), who both saves his life and ultimately causes his death. Demonized by white society, ostracized by the Nation of Islam, Malcolm at the end is a painfully isolated figure, haunted by the conviction that he will be killed. There's a powerful, clammy sense of dread in these closing scenes. When the assassins open fire, one glimpses almost a smile on Washington's face, as if relief had arrived at last.

Unlike most epic heroes, Malcolm was not a man of action but a man of words, a teacher. And "Malcolm X" is intended, among other things, as a pedagogical film-the first Hollywood history of black pride. It's at its most stilted when it lapses into pure reverence (watch out whenever the heavenly choirs break out on the soundtrack). And perhaps because Malcolm's wife, Betty Shabazz (played by Angela Bassett), was an adviser to the film, the scenes of their courtship and marriage feel stiff and constrained. Bassett is a powerful presence, but Betty is never fully flesh and blood. Lee is looser and more inventive in the first, funkier half of the journey. Sin is always easier to make cinematic than saintliness. Malcolm's relationship with his white lover, Sophia (Kate Vernon), bristles with ambivalent eroticism. Lee himself does a sprightly turn as Malcolm's pal and partner in crime, Shorty. Throughout, the period details are lovingly re-created, and the musical selections are inspired--choice but never obvious cuts from the likes of Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Louis Jordan, Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles.

Lee is faithful to the autobiography's strategy of dealing with each phase of Malcolm's spiritual and political journey without historical hindsight. The movie doesn't impose the consciousness of the "late" Malcolm-who softened his blanket denunciation of whites, but remained a committed black nationalist-on the "early" Malcolm. What fuses the film's disparate parts is Washington's riveting, impeccably controlled performance. Everyone who has a stake in Malcolm's legacy will argue about aspects of his character that seem overblown or skimped, but none can deny the conviction and grace of Washington's portrayal. He burns on a low flame. Lee and company have performed a powerful service: they have brought Malcolm X very much to life again, both as man and myth.