009 From the Page to the Screen – Malcolm X (Bonus Patreon Podcast)

“It has always been my belief that I, too, will die by violence. I have done all that I can to be prepared” (3).

Malcolm X speaks these words after telling of his father’s brutal death at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist hate group formed after the American Civil War in 1865. He describes his father, the Baptist minister Reverend Earl Little, as a six-foot-four, very black man with only one eye. He believed that Black people could never achieve freedom in America and should return to the African homeland. Four of his five brothers lost their lives to violence. Reverend Little would join them, as would his son Malcolm. 

I’m Veronica, and thank you for joining me for this first episode of the bonus podcast From the Page to the Screen, focusing on stories and the movies and television shows they’ve inspired.

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The Nation of Islam is an African-American religious movement that is separate from the traditional practice of Islam. When they began to gain attention, journalist and author Alex Haley attempted to get in contact with their second-in-command, Malcolm X. He wanted to write an article about the church reporting objectively on both what they said about themselves and what others said about them. Malcolm X declined to help him and said he should speak with the church’s leader, a man referred to as The Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Haley did so, after which Malcolm X began to trust him. After his article, “Mr. Muhammad Speaks,” was published, Haley was approached with the idea of writing down Malcolm X’s life story in a book. Malcolm X agreed, on the conditions that the Nation of Islam would receive all of the profits, nothing could be in the book that he didn’t say, and nothing could be left out that he wanted it to contain. The conditions were agreed upon, and this book was born. It was published in 1965, eight months after Malcolm X’s murder.

The Autobiography is just that, an autobiographical account of this dynamic, outspoken individual from childhood through the aftermath of his assassination. It opens with Malcolm X recounting a story from his mother, that when she was pregnant with him, a group of hooded Ku Klux Klan members rode up to their home one night, took out their weapons, and shouted for his father to come out. They said the family should get out of town because “the good Christian white people” were not going to tolerate the Reverend spreading the word of Marcus Garvey to the “good Negroes of Omaha” in Nebraska. Marcus Garvey, who died in 1940, was a Black nationalist who believed in the unification of African descendants and advocated separatism.1 He argued that integration was not desirable and he attempted to establish independent Black countries around the world. His influence on Malcolm X would be easy to see.

While the book takes the reader through Malcolm X’s early years, it’s not until he lands in prison after burglarizing a house that we begin to see the change that produced the figure that many people are familiar with. It was there that Malcolm X was first introduced to Islam and the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. According to Muhammad, the original man was Black and the “devil white man” was responsible for ruining the world’s empires and civilizations, for brainwashing the Black man with a Christianity that remade God in his own White image. This provided Malcolm X’s already brewing anger with a sense of righteousness, giving him justification for his claims that all White men were evil and the two races could never live together in harmony.

However, what the book exposes is that while the Nation of Islam sought to further close Malcolm X’s eyes with their own bombastic rhetoric, the practice of Islam as a religion is also responsible for truly opening them. Revelations of Elijah Muhammad’s involvement in a sex scandal had caused a rift in his relationship with Malcolm X, and a comment the latter made in regards to President Kennedy’s assassination led the church’s leader to silence its most vocal member. Soon, there were rumors that he was wanted dead. Having heard that eastern Muslims criticized the debasement of their religion by Black Muslims, Malcolm X completed a pilgrimage to Mecca that thoroughly changed his separatist beliefs. The pilgrimage showed him how deeply Islam has been twisted to suit Muhammad’s needs. It was in Mecca that Malcolm X saw Muslims of every skin color coming together to share in their common beliefs. He said:

“America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered ‘white’—the ‘white’ attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color” (391).

The Autobiography reveals that it was in his later years that he served as an example of the journey that America, as a country, must take, going from believing that people act according to their skin colors to acknowledging the roles they play within an oppressive society. He says,

“An American white ambassador in one African country was Africa’s most respected ambassador….Based on what I had heard of him, I had to believe him when he told me that as long as he was on the African continent, he never thought in terms of race, that he dealt with human beings, never noticing their color. He said he was more aware of language differences than of color differences. He said that only when he returned to America would he become aware of color differences. I told him, ‘What you are telling me is that it isn’t the American white man who is a racist, but it’s the American political, economic, and social atmosphere that automatically nourishes a racist psychology in the white man.’ He agreed” (426).

On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was scheduled to speak at the Audubon Ballroom in New York. Haley reports that the people who entered the ballroom had not been searched. This bothered Malcolm X, as his separation from Elijah Muhammad had resulted in threatening phone calls and even the bombing of his home while he and his family were asleep inside. When Malcolm X went up to speak, there was a disturbance in the audience, with a man shouting, “Take your hand out of my pocket!” A witness reported seeing three men in the front row stand up and start shooting. Others reported seeing a man with a shotgun and a man with two revolvers rush toward the stage. Sixteen bullets pierced Malcolm X’s body. He was dead before he reached the hospital. He was 39 years old.

It is a feat that Alex Haley was able to draw together this narrative from the many interviews he conducted with Malcolm X in the two years preceding his assassination. Although early parts of the book may seem to give too much focus to his gambling and involvement with prostitutes, Malcolm X insists that they are important, for they show how he evolved to become the man telling his tale to Haley. The book is a detailed and enlightening look at a man who is often only remembered for his anger. It is this spotlight on the capacity for inner change that makes it such an important work, even today, more than fifty years later.

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In 1967, producer Marvin Worth bought the rights to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and several writers attempted to complete a script. The first was James Baldwin, a novelist and essayist known for his writings on race and sexuality. However, Baldwin was under pressure to downplay the political implications of Malcolm X’s pilgrimage to Mecca and to increase the action sequences in an unrealistic way. Baldwin saw that the script would be cut to emphasize the action “in the interest of ‘entertainment’ values.”2 He abandoned the project and, in 1972, the script was published as the book One Day When I Was Lost: A Scenario Based on Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Screenwriter Arnold Perl later edited the script. In 1990, American director Spike Lee agreed to direct a film version of Malcolm X’s life, working from the Baldwin and Perl script. Production wasn’t easy, and Lee faced threats from Louis Farrakhan, the then- and current leader of the Nation of Islam. He recounted these difficulties in the book By Any Means Necessary: Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X, published in 1992.3

The film stars Denzel Washington, as the title character, and Angela Bassett, as his wife Betty Shabazz. A number of other well-known actors can also be seen, including Delroy Lindo, as West Indian Archie, Wendell Pierce, as Ben Thomas, Giancarlo Esposito, as Thomas Hayer, and John David Washington, as a student in a Harlem classroom. Spike Lee himself took on the role of Malcolm X’s Harlem sidekick Shorty.

The resulting film is bold and audacious. It opens with real footage of police officers brutally beating Rodney King, an unarmed Black motorist in Los Angeles.4 The incident had happened just one year prior, in 1991. When the officers were acquitted of any wrongdoing, the verdict sparked riots across the city. Washington’s voice is heard over the footage: “You are not an American, you are the victim of America….We don’t see any American Dream. We experience only an American Nightmare.” The letter “X,” in the fabric of the American flag, appears on the screen. It’s on fire, evoking not only the burning of the flag in protest, but the cross burnings of the Ku Klux Klan and the flames of the riots in Los Angeles.

What’s notable about this film is that it’s not the straightforward biography we tend to expect from movies based on public figures. While Lee aims to depict Malcolm X’s life, he is also making a definitive statement about the importance of that life and it’s continued relevance today. We see scenes from Malcolm X’s childhood, including the Ku Klux Klan arriving on horseback at his family’s house at night, demanding to see his father before turning around and riding off, lit by an absurdly large moon that is perhaps meant to present the opposite of the typical image of the western hero riding off into the sunset. These are certainly not heroes. Our first image of an adult Malcolm X is set in a barbershop where he’s getting his hair “conked,” a painful straightening process using lye that could result in chemical burns. When he can’t stand the pain any longer, he rushes to run his head under cold water; even then, he’s more worried about whether his hair is straight. “Looks white, don’t it?” he asks, pleased to see the process has worked. These scenes prepare the audience to witness the change in Malcolm X over the course of his life.

Lee’s directorial hand is never hidden throughout the film. There are several flashbacks to those visits from the Ku Klux Klan, and Lee intersperses the image of Reverend Little tied to train tracks, illuminated by the light of an oncoming train, at various points in Malcolm X’s adult life. We are never allowed to forget the violence he suffered as a child and how it shaped his life as an adult. In prison, Malcolm X meets the fellow inmate Baines—a fictional composite of the individuals who introduced the real Malcolm X to the Nation of Islam. Baines encourages Malcolm X to read the dictionary to see how even language perpetuates the myth of white supremacy. Baines shows him the definition of the word “black,” and the camera zooms in on “foul, soiled, forbidden, wicked.” He shows him the definition of the word “white,” and we see “pure as snow,” “opposite of black,” “innocent,” “without evil intent,” “honest,” and “harmless.” He encourages Malcolm X to write to a letter to Elijah Muhammad, and when he receives a letter in return, the camera rotates around the cell as he reads. A golden light shines on him, emanating from the figure of Muhammad, appearing to him as if a god. Shortly thereafter, Malcolm X has shaved his head, removing the conk once and for all. In the prison church service, he raises his hand. After the chaplain says he can see the devil has a question, he asks what color the disciples were and what color the original Hebrews were. The chaplain says they can’t know for certain, to which Malcolm X responds that they can’t know for certain that God is white. His first transformation has begun.

The film has given birth to iconic scenes of Washington delivering Malcolm X’s speeches. In one, he is preaching on the street to a crowd of Black listeners among a cacophony of other Black men doing the same. Included in this crowd is the real life Al Shapton, a Baptist minister and civil rights activist who, in 2020, delivered a eulogy at George Floyd’s funeral, and the real life Bobby Seale, one of the founding members of the Black Panther Party, a political group that sought to challenge police brutality in the Black community.5 We next see Malcolm X inside a half-packed room, pronouncing some of the film’s most repeated lines: “You are not an American. You’re an African who happens to be in America….We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us!” While Washington’s words aren’t exactly those of Malcolm X, he captures the electricity of those original speeches. I’ve included links to both this scene and to Malcolm X’s speech in the description.6

There are numerous instances where Lee’s choices as a director are apparent. This is most true at the film’s end. As Malcolm X moves down the sidewalk to the entrance of the Audubon Ballroom, on February 21, 1965, he appears to float, as if already a phantom of his earthly self. A song by the soul musician, civil rights activist, and friend to Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, plays in the background and we hear “It’s been a long, a long time comin’, but I know, a change gon’ come, oh yes, it will.”7 After the climactic scene that leaves Malcolm X dead, we’re presented with a voiceover by actor and activist Ossie Davis, reading the same eulogy that he gave at his friend’s funeral.8 As we listen to his words, we see images of Malcolm X himself, interspersed with those of notable moments in Black history, including activist Angela Davis leaving jail, the Black Panthers raising their gloved fists at the 1968 Olympics, Black children desegregating White schools, the boxer Muhammad Ali who famously refused to fight for the US in the Vietnam War, writer James Baldwin, and present day children celebrating Malcolm X in Soweto, South Africa. At the film’s very end, a teacher in a Harlem school is celebrating Malcolm X’s birthday with her students. One by one, they stand up and shout, “I am Malcolm X!” We are transported across the globe to another classroom that features the soon-to-be president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. He is repeating the words to one of Malcolm X’s famous speeches: “We declare our right on this Earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be given the rights of a human being, to be respected as a human being, in this society, on this Earth, in this day, which we intended to bring into existence.” The camera changes and we see Malcolm X himself, who delivers the movie’s final lines: “By any means necessary.”

The film has been largely praised for bringing the life of Malcolm X to the screen, and Denzel Washington was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal. Film critic Roger Ebert called it “extraordinary,” writing “Walking into Malcolm X, I expected an angrier film than Spike Lee has made. This film is not an assault but an explanation, and it is not exclusionary; it deliberately addresses all races in [the] audience. White people, going into the film, may expect to meet a Malcolm X who will attack them, but they will find a Malcolm X whose experiences and motives make him understandable and finally heroic….Black viewers will not be surprised by Malcolm’s experiences and the racism he lived through, but they may be surprised to find that he was less one-dimensional than his image, that he was capable of self-criticism and was developing his ideas right up until the day he died.”9 Writing for The Guardian in 2015, Ashley Clark deems the film “still absolutely necessary,” saying it is “notable for the ferocity with which it engages directly with contemporary events.”10 

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So, should you read The Autobiography of Malcolm X or should you watch Spike Lee’s film? Truthfully, you should do both. The book sheds much light on a figure who came to be seen as controversial, but whose words demonstrate the power of learning and transformation. Malcolm X’s objective continues to be misunderstood by those who condemn his calls for violence in the absence of non-violent solutions and ignore his revelations that the American system is responsible for racism, not individuals themselves. He is still important to America today. However, if you’re only going to pick one, you can’t miss Spike Lee’s masterpiece. At three hours and twenty-one minutes, the film requires some dedication, but you’ll be rewarded with a director and actor at their prime, delivering not just a movie, but a vision that continues to be a commentary on the present moment. It is the best movie I have ever seen.

Thank you for listening. To hear more episodes of this bonus podcast, sign up on Patreon at patreon.com/theenglishchronicles. I would love to hear your thoughts about this book and the film adaptation. Leave a comment at theenglishchronicles.com, where you can also find a transcript of each episode, send an email to theenglishchronicles@gmail.com, or find me on Instagram @theenglishchronicles. Join me next month for another story/screen pairing, and next week on the main podcast to start talking about Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. As always, keep reading.


Notes:

  1. “Marcus Garvey,” History.com, last modified January 26, 2021, https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/marcus-garvey
  2. James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work, (New York: Vintage International, 1976).
  3. Ashley Clark, “Malcolm X: Spike Lee’s Biopic is Still Absolutely Necessary,” The Guardian, February 19, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/feb/19/malcolm-x-spike-lee-biopic-black-cinema-selma-the-butler
  4. “Riots erupt in Los Angeles After Police Officers Are Acquitted in Rodney King Trial,” History.com, last modified April 27, 2021, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/riots-erupt-in-los-angeles.  
  5. “Rev. Al Sharpton Full Eulogy George Floyd Funeral,” News 19 WLTX, June 9, 2020, video, 34:53, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nDxG2jTA2Oc
  6. “1964, March 29 – Malcolm X – We Didn’t Land on Plymouth Rock – Closed Captioned,” Captioning for Everyone, November 3, 2014, video, 3:44, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Aq2Z0i8D6A; “Malcolm X. | Slave Mind | Warner Bros. Entertainment,” Warner Bros. Entertainment, January 17, 2012, video, 1:07, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMdDwBliS-o
  7. “Sam Cooke – A Change Is Gonna Come (Official Lyric Video),” Sam Cooke, January 22, 2016, video, 3:10, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wEBlaMOmKV4
  8. “Eulogy Delivered by Ossie Davis at the Funeral of Malcolm X,” Malcolm X, accessed June 25, 2021, https://www.malcolmx.com/eulogy/
  9. Roger Ebert, “Malcolm X,” RogerEbert.com, November 18, 1992, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/malcolm-x-1992
  10. Clark, “Malcolm X.”

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