Where I was born, there were virtually no people of color. The class I was in from kindergarten through the fourth grade, had two people of Asian descent, and one kid from South America. I believe he was from Peru. There were about twenty kids in my class. It was not until my family moved to Florida and started sending us to public school that I began truly interacting with people of other skin tones. It was never a problem for me, it was different. I had no frame of reference, nor was race something that was discussed in our house. Instead, I had to rely on my education to teach me the correct thinking. Had I started practicing my Faith at an earlier time, despite going to Catholic school early on, I would have had a better foundation. All the same, one thing that has always irked me is bullies, being the victim of them myself. As I advanced in my knowledge of history, it always struck me that race relations in this country have typically been the strong preying on the week. If you understand such relations in more depth, you know that it actually the ones doing the oppressing who are the weak ones, and their actions are the result of them needing to fulfill some deep-seated inadequacy on their part. The natural course of my studies led me to Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). I was impressed by Malcolm X, who grew up as Malcolm Little, shedding his criminal lifestyle and become someone unafraid to stand up to tyranny. Today’s film, Malcolm X (1992), is the film adaptation of that seminal book.
After an introductory montage to Malcolm X, which includes the title character (Denzel Washington) speaking out against racism and scenes of his father, Earl Little (Tommy Hollis), being killed by the Klan, we see a fresh-faced Malcolm Little. This is before he drops his last name for a little, and we will find out how this happens. For now, he is far from the words you hear at the beginning. He is living with his aunt in the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury, and he and his friend Shorty (Spike Lee) are trying to make their way as street criminals. They are also trying to straighten their hair, a process that tinges Malcolm’s red, giving him that color as a nickname. As part of Malcolm’s job as a porter on the train between Boston and New York, where he learns more about petty crime, he ends up in the borough of Harlem. There, he meets a number’s runner named “West Indian” Archie, who further brings Malcolm into this illicit world, which also includes drugs. He and Shorty also take white girlfriends. A falling out with Archie, though, leads to Malcolm and Shorty going on their own spree, bringing their girlfriends with them. They are caught, though, and sentenced to fourteen years in prison. This is the turning point in Malcolm’s life. He spends a period during his imprisonment behaving as most other inmates, and not getting along well. Eventually, he meets a fellow convict named Banes (Albert Hall), who introduces Malcolm to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.). This is how Malcolm is converted to the Nation of Islam, and he gives himself wholeheartedly over to this path. It also improves his behavior in jail, earning him a reduction of his sentence. One of the first things he does is go to visit Elijah Muhammad. For the first time, Malcolm is given a purpose, and he takes to the streets to spread the word of the Nation of Islam. His zeal brings him promotion, and soon he is leading a group of fellow members to secure the release of another of their group who is imprisoned following a beating he had received from the police. His leadership qualities being proven, he is given more opportunities around the country to use his cutting and fiery rhetoric to attract more followers to the Nation. In doing so, he consistently points out the absurdities and contradictions of racism in America. He also meets his wife, Betty Sanders (Angela Bassett), and the two start a family. Such is Malcolm’s success that some within the Nation begin to become jealous of him, and believe that he wants to replace Elijah Muhammad. Though Malcolm had always begun by praising the Nation’s founder, Malcolm also begins to become disillusioned when he begins hearing reports of Elijah Muhammad’s infidelities. These rumors contradict what the leader preaches, and are confirmed by his own investigations. Following a suspension from the Nation, Malcolm decides to make the Hajj, the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca that is a pillar of Islam. It is an eye-opening experience for him as it shows him that the religion is full of people of all colors, including blond hair, blue eye whites. It is also a time of increased harassment from members of the Nation and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which puts him on edge. Upon returning from the Hajj, Malcolm publicly announces a split from the Nation, and the start of a more accepting form of black Muslim brotherhood. It would not be long lasting. During one of the first meetings of the new group, as Malcolm gets up to talk, three gunmen assault the stage, killing him. In the chaos, Malcolm dies in Betty’s arms. We close with another montage of various Civil Rights leaders, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (stock footage) and Nelson Mandela (Himself) praising the fallen leader.
Malcolm X is a little over three hours, though I have never felt that length in the many times I have seen it. It is an important movie, and one that follows the events of the book on which it is based pretty closely. It also piqued my interest in the Nation of Islam, mostly because I knew that my favorite boxer, Muhammad Ali, was a member. Further reading has been revelatory. The Nation of Islam has some pretty bizarre beliefs, such as thinking that all whites were created by a mad scientist named Yacub on the island of Patmos. They also have the notion that the world is surround by alien ships waiting to bring aboard all black peoples before destroying the planet, only to later repopulate it. These are not teachings of actual Islam, which bears more resemblance to Catholicism than these fanciful, science fiction fantasies. What is interesting, though, is that Malcolm had the opportunity to convert to Catholicism. His African American girlfriend, Laura (Theresa Randle), before he set out on his life of crime, is Catholic. As most girls of our Faith are taught, she practiced abstinence, much to Malcolm’s frustration. When he is in prison, one of those who tries to reach him is a priest (Christopher Plummer), but Malcolm makes it abundantly clear that he wants no part of the Church. Still, there are ties between Catholicism and Malcolm X. I have read of sisters being inspired by Alex Haley’s book to join the religious life. There is a rigor to the way Malcolm lived that fits well with taking vows as a nun or brother. His family, too, is a model for a Catholic one. Betty and Malcolm genuinely loved each other, and this is portrayed in the movie. They practiced their faith as equals, which is actual Catholic teaching, though with defined roles that they each performed. Finally, there is no room in Catholicism for racism. People point to the errors of missionaries at discreet moments in history, or other moments of failure on issues of race, and seem to write the entire Faith off as worthless on these matters. It simply is not true. Many priests took part in the Civil Rights movement, as did religious sisters. Our cinematic Malcolm, like the real one, preaches Black Nationalism, and there is a reason for it. Still, even though it is Islam, it is a faith-based philosophy of pride that provides the foundation for what he says.
If nothing else, you could watch Malcolm X instead of reading the book and have a pretty good idea of the controversial leader’s life. Actually, controversial is the wrong word, and I only used it to illustrate what others called him. Any time you have someone standing up for what is right, they are doing God’s will. While Malcolm’s message did contain violence, it should be noted that is the Nation’s influence. Once he split with Elijah Muhammad, his tone softened.