Malcolm X is a 1992 Spike Lee Joint starring Denzel Washington in the life story of the controversial leader. The film mostly moves in chronological order though it occasionally jumps back to Malcolm’s childhood. We see his early days as a teen in Boston as well as his time as a numbers runner in Harlem and later burglar. But most importantly we bear witness to his journey of self-discovery and the transformation that leads to him becoming a leader in the Civil Rights Movement or more accurately an early forerunner to the Black Pride Movement.
Malcolm X is a movie that I have watched at least 50 million times while I’ve read the book at least three to four times. The Autobiography of Malcolm X is one of a handful of books that I returned to time and time again. It’s like how some people have the Bible and keep it on their nightstand and might just pick it up and read a verse or two. I don’t follow any religion nor do I worship Malcolm X but his autobiography is a book that just spoke to me from my first reading. Here, we’re going to discuss the film, Malcolm X, which is based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X but with some creative liberties taken.
The first time that I read the book, I was probably about 13 years old. I’d already graduated from junior high school but there were still a few days left to the school year. I met up with my friends at school and we hung out for a bit before parting ways. I started reading the book on the bus ride home and by the time I was done probably a few days later, it had made a profound impact on my perspective of myself and life. It was an incredibly transformative experience for me then but I’ve still managed to pick up something new each time I’ve read it since.
The opening credits are presented with the audio of a Malcolm X speech where he is discussing the history of violence that White people have exacted upon the world. This hypocrisy of American democracy in the face of the injustices endured by Black people in America. The imagery switches back and forth between what appears to be the beating of Rodney King and an American flag that catches fire and burns into the form of an ‘X’.
It’s like burning the flag in an effigy which is something that a lot of people fervently dislike. But I look at it as the flag is an inanimate object and people burn it as a form of protest. It seems ridiculous to care more about someone burning an object than you care about injustices against human beings.
Typically the first scene in a movie such as this is the person looking back on their life or them as a baby/child. Instead, the creative decision was made to begin with Malcolm Little as a young man getting his hair conked for the first time by his friend Shorty (Spike Lee). When this chemistry experiment of lye, potatoes, and who knows what else was applied to his hair it burned but then resulted in his hair becoming straight. Consider that it took Shorty and at least one other man to hold Malcolm down during the setting period.
One minute he’s complaining about the mixture feeling like it’s burning a hole in his head and fighting to rinse it off for some relief. But his first concern is not if there’s still any skin on his head but rather how straight is his hair. Malcolm is shabbily dressed and looks a bit rough like he just arrived from the country. After his conk, he ditches the ill-fitting suit and puts on a zoot suit that looks new and was likely more keeping with those times. This is like Malcolm’s first transformation where he goes from Malcolm Little to “Detroit Red”.
We then begin to take a look back at his childhood. He recounts his mother being pregnant with him and the Ku Klux Klan arriving at their house in Omaha, Nebraska searching for his father. Mr. Little was an activist and a follower of Marcus Garvey and his Back to Africa Movement. Mrs. Little was a very fair-skinned woman who hated her complexion as she was the product of her mother’s rape by a white man. In contrast, Malcolm’s father was a very tall and dark-skinned Black man.
In this very early scene, you have Malcolm as a young man going through the torture of getting his hair conked. Then you go back to his parents. His mother was purposely seeking out the Blackest man that she could find to have children of some color. And then his father, granted Malcolm makes assumptions, sought out a very light-skinned woman despite him being very pro-Black. From the very start, you see these different ideas at play with regards to the Black identity and how it’s affected by white supremacy. The different ways that it manifests both within Malcolm during his time as a young man and also with his parents just a generation earlier.
Malcolm and Shorty go out to a party at a dancehall and Malcolm is accompanied by Laura (Theresa Randle), a nice young lady who lives with her grandma. But then here comes Sophia (Kate Vernon) a young White woman who seems to be a little older and is eyeing up Malcolm from across the room. Malcolm is headed for a rough patch in his life and wasn’t boyfriend or husband material at that point. He recognized this about himself and cut Laura loose instead of stringing her along. Malcolm and Sophia became an item and while Laura began to move out of the picture, he still cared and kept an eye on her from a distance.
The Little family was broken up due to the murder of Malcolm’s father. As a child, Malcolm’s father ran afoul of the Ku Klux Klan for speaking out against racism, telling Black people to stand up for themselves, and encouraging other Black people to consider moving back to Africa so they could have some degree of freedom. The back of Mr. Little’s skull had been crushed in from a forceful blow and he was then run over by a train. All signs pointed towards him having been murdered, lynched really, but through various machinations, his death was ruled a suicide. Due to the stated cause of death, Mrs. Little was unable to collect on a life insurance policy that would have provided the family with much-needed assistance.
Nine children, at least several of whom are close in age, would be a lot to care for in a two-parent home let alone as a single mother. And that’s just concerning supervision not even taking into account finances. I highly doubt that anyone at that time was recommending counseling or some kind of therapy to help Mrs. Little and the children cope with their grief. This woman lost her husband in a tragically violent manner and while trying to hold it together, all of her children were taken away. She probably started out being in a state of depression and it progressed to a mental break and her being placed in an institution. The kids were dispersed and Malcolm was sent to a school/home for boys.
Malcolm spent some time growing up at this school where he was the only Black child. In that environment, he was called the N-word so frequently that in his naivete, he didn’t recognize it as an insult. Imagine what it was like for a young Black child growing up in an environment where white supremacy reigns. Other Black children might at least have their parents, family members, or other Black people around to shield and help them navigate the world. They would be offered some kind of guidance or coping mechanisms for dealing with this racism.
Yet, here is this young child with no one to defend him or help him overcome the traumatic experiences of his father’s murder and being torn away from his mother. Instead, he’s taken and put into this environment where he is the only Black child and he’s not being supported. He’s not receiving the care that such a child would need. It doesn’t sound like they were starving or beating him. But rather he wasn’t receiving the emotional and psychological support that he needed to develop positively.
Couple that with the white supremacy teachings that he was receiving at the school. Is it any wonder that he later had this at least subconscious desire to be and have anything associated with Whiteness? The pain he endures to have his hair conked and allowing himself to be pursued by this young White woman. (More on that in a moment.)
Young Malcolm shows promise as even as a child he is shown to be intelligent. There’s a scene at the school where he mentions that he’s getting the best grades in his class. But the teacher tells him that his aspirations of being a lawyer are unrealistic because he is Black and would be better off striving to become a carpenter.
These micro- and macro-aggressions would kill a child’s self-esteem. Growing up in this environment where you’re being taught from a young age that your skin color is used to define you within society and identifies you as being inferior. Instead of being given a fair shot in life, you are instead pushed to value and strive to attain this thing that you will never be. Repeated moments of trauma create an inferiority complex and Malcolm develops a sense of worthlessness and low self-esteem. As he gets older, Malcolm indulges in behaviors that are harmful to him.
I don’t think Malcolm shouldn’t have dated Sophia because of them being different races but rather because she indulged and took part in his self-destructive behavior. Malcolm is suspicious about Sophia’s motivations for dating him and expects that a time will come when she will accuse him of raping her. He dates these young women and then questions what it is that they see in him that makes them want to be with him. Malcolm does everything possible to push them away.
It was better to break up with Laura rather than having her as the nice girlfriend or wife at home while he’s out carrying on with Sophia and other women. But he’s not exactly nice to Sophia either as he seems to regard her as being ok for a good time. He’s disrespectful towards her and other women. It kind of falls in line with these mental categorizations that some men have between “good girls” and “bad girls” while they treat both poorly but in different ways.
What does it say about you as a guy (or woman) if you meet someone who is genuinely nice and wants to be with you? And you reject them, not because you’re not attracted to them but because you think they’re too good for you? Only to then pick up with someone else who you mistreat. The whole scene with Malcolm interrogating Sophia and then making her kiss his foots (and I do mean “foots” as nothing was right about them.) Malcolm might have heard of or had his own experiences with other White women but Sophia in particular hadn’t done anything to warrant this kind of mistreatment. Instead, Malcolm seems to be dating her at least in part out of a sense of revenge.
At the point where he was still dating Laura, Malcolm had a job as a waiter serving meals and snacks on trains. And right around the time that he starts dating Sophia, he left his honest job to pursue a career in crime. He leaves behind regular teenage activities like going to dances and becomes involved with drugs, running numbers, and later burglaries. Malcolm was taken under the wing of West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo), an older numbers man who is quite sharp and knows his way around the streets.
There’s a lot of conversation about why some Black men are involved with crime, go to prison and join the Nation of Islam or other religious groups. Some of this might be a matter of going to prison while they are immature in their teens or early 20s and hopefully seeing the error of their ways and changing due to maturing. Having an immature mindset, lacking life experience, and not thinking rationally can lead to a person making poor decisions that have serious consequences.
Wisdom doesn’t automatically come with age but rather the right mindset. For some people when they’re young, they lack life experience but still think they know everything. And then often life is just go, go, go and you’re so focused on one thing after another but not necessarily sitting down and consciously thinking about who you are as a person now, where you want to go, what you want to do, or who you want to be in the future. Some people are out here getting into all kinds of trouble and they are fortunate to decide to change before they go to jail or something really bad happens. But then you have the unfortunate ones who realize the error of their ways only after they’re already sitting in prison. Some people don’t deserve to be in prison while for others that’s exactly where they need to be.
Prison sounds like it is incredibly boring and any excitement is probably not anything you want to deal with. With nothing but time and limited activities, for many people, prison is the first time in probably a long while that they’ve picked up a book and read for fun or have attended any kind of religious service. They have a moment to sit down without a bunch of external stimuli and distractions. It reminds me of some lyrics from “Hills and Valley” by Buju Banton.
Many live this life without having a clue
No reason why they are so sad and blue
Places to go so much things to do
Not a moment to reflect on the cycle of life
People, poor people, in particular, are caught up in the rat race and live just trying to get through the day. The pressure to figure out a way to survive means that they often don’t have the time or luxury to just sit and think. For some, circumstances in life allow them to figure things out and mature naturally over time. Whereas for others, prison is kind of like a timeout where they make good use of their time by using it to think about becoming better versions of themselves.
Malcolm had an older man, Baines (Albert Hall), from the Nation of Islam pull his coat and put him up on Islam. Baines asked Malcolm questions and broke things down to make him reconsider his thought process. It was the challenging push that he needed to move in the right direction. Just imagine how many young men or people, in general, would benefit from having such a person in their life. Why is it that for so many young men like Malcolm, it takes them going to prison for someone to get through to them?
To a degree, it might be that he wasn’t listening before. Consider his drama with West Indian Archie, he was involved in crime but was trying to school Malcolm about how to dress and carry himself with some pride and self-control. Malcolm wasn’t hearing all of that because he was young and feeling himself so his mind was clouded by everything else that he had going on. His immaturity and insecurity made him brash, especially in the presence of Sophia, and he made a fool of himself.
He’s now in prison and the system is breaking him down but as he teeters on the edge, Baines reaches out and pulls him back. I think of young men and women whether they’re in prison, addicted to drugs, alcoholics, etc. People go through things in life and don’t always choose the most positive methods or means for coping. They might just be struggling with life in general. How many people would benefit from having someone with their head screwed on right pulling them aside and talking to them? But then again, it has to be that you’re at a place in life where you’re receptive to that message. Sometimes the issue isn’t a lack of messengers but rather that the person that needs to listen isn’t ready to hear the message.
As someone with a deep respect for writing and a writer in the making, I value words. From the time my cousins and I were little kids, when adults weren’t around we used all manners of profanity for the fun of it. Sometimes the word was so unnecessary and made no sense but it was just the thing to do. Baines says that people use profanity when they lack the words to adequately express their thoughts and feelings. Hearing that as a kid motivated me to limit my use of profanity, build my vocabulary, and work on expressing my thoughts. That’s not to say that I never use profanity but it is a habit that I have seriously curtailed.
This exchange between Baines and Malcolm is one of my favorite parts of Malcolm X because he’s just dropping knowledge. Understanding the root and subtext of words and thus not taking them at face value but rather appreciating their importance and intent. Movies and tv shows sometimes have that pro-Black character who is just so overboard with citing offenses that they become ridiculous. But here the breakdown of words and reading the dictionary is dope.
Words matter and when you think about them, it’s true that often things that are associated with “black” have a negative connotation versus anything associated with “white”. When associated with black the thing is typically negative or evil but when associated with white it’s something good. Simple things like angel food cake which is white versus devil’s food cake which is chocolate brown. White is used to symbolize good and purity so wedding dresses, whitewashing, white list, etc. But then black is typically something bad like black-hearted, blackmail, blackballed, etc.
Think of it as subconscious branding where you get this message over and over that this thing here is good while this other thing is bad. And it’s then repeated in different ways which reinforce it over time. It becomes a part of your subconscious to the point that you don’t even have to think about it anymore. The moment you see or hear about something associated with either color you automatically know how to categorize the situation.
Malcolm Little later known as Detroit Red gives way to Malcolm X. Baines tells Malcolm that he is lost and doesn’t know himself. Adopting the last name “X” symbolizes Black people’s lost history and names. The names we have, at least outside of Africa, typically came from slave masters as they aren’t the ancestral names that we had in Africa.
Malcolm has been stumbling through life and making mistakes because he was lost as a person with a negative view of himself. But when someone set him on the right path and corrected his way of thinking he matured as a person and became a better version of himself. Quite often when people make mistakes in life their first instinct is to hide what they’ve done wrong. When people become famous or otherwise well-known, at least in the past though it might be changing now, there is a tendency to hide these unsavory things about yourself.
I heard a quote from Malcolm X where he said that he felt no shame at having once been a criminal because he left all of that behind. Having been who he was as a young man and his journey in life brought him to the point of becoming Malcolm X. The things that we go through in life, both our triumphs and failures, our mistakes and good deeds, all combine to make us who we are. We all make mistakes in life, some bigger than others and you overcome them by making a real and valiant effort at correcting your wrongs, doing right, and becoming a better version of yourself.
It’s interesting to then see Malcolm become active in the NOI in the outside world and move up the ranks. It’s not exactly clear why he in particular came to the attention of Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman, Jr.). Maybe from writing letters and a few words from Baines? Or possibly that he had a rather unique story? Whatever it was, once in position he was able to connect with people.
Malcolm is back out on the street but in a completely different role. If you think back to it earlier in Malcolm X, he was kind of keeping an eye on Laura. Quite a bit of time has gone by since they last crossed paths and thankfully she’s still alive but down bad. Walking down the streets of Harlem, there are all kinds of women plying their trade. Laura isn’t a bad person but life happens and we see her looking at him in a bit of a role reversal.
Juxtaposed against Malcolm speaking about Black women in America is this scene where women are selling their bodies. Just like the young man that Malcolm was and the guys he associated with, these women are doing harm to themselves. Laura stands out as she has popped up now and then since Malcolm’s youth. Typically around the time of some life-altering event or change. We know a bit about her backstory so I felt for her being out there but it’s also sad because all of those other women also have a story.
And then here comes Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett) and their sweet courtship. In some regards she is like Laura when she was younger but a grown woman and thus less naive and more sure of herself. And Malcolm is a bit out of practice though more mature and otherwise ready to be in a relationship with such a woman.
Muhammad has warned Malcolm to be very conscious of the type of woman that he spends his time with which is good advice on a basic level. But some of the reasoning is a bit sexist. In the same vein that young Malcolm and the other men around him were a mess was due in part to immaturity and having grown up in a white supremacist society. The same would be true for his female counterparts. Their shortcomings are not a matter of their gender but the environment and circumstances of their development. The problem is coming of age in a society that devalues you and teaches you not to value yourself.
We don’t get much of any backstory on Betty but as Malcolm has matured, his taste in women has also changed. With this final transition, he gets a quick update on Sophia and doesn’t even see Laura again. Laura and Sophia both spent time convincing Malcolm to be with them and were willing to accept less than stellar treatment from him. Meanwhile, from the very beginning, Betty pushed back when he was overstepping. Boundaries might vary between relationships but they are healthy in relationships. Though I would be curious to know how this whole thing about a woman has to be of a certain height, complexion, and age formula for a man developed. These seem like random traits to assess compatibility as a couple.
During a later conversation, Muhammad shares his plans to make Malcolm the national minister and it will be his job to open mosques around the country. He’s elevated from just being local or regional to the national level and with that becomes a more publicly prominent figure. Muhammad cautions him about the media attention he will receive and that it might inspire jealousy. Others have been active in the NOI for longer but haven’t risen so high and certainly not that fast. It’s quite a bit of foreshadowing.
There’s a scene of clips where Malcolm is giving different speeches and at one point you see Bains and Muhammad sitting in a room watching one of the speeches on television. Bains points out that other members of the NOI are whispering that Malcolm is getting a bit too much attention. Muhammad corrects Bains and tells him that he sent Malcolm forth with this message and Malcolm is doing what he’s supposed to be doing. He brushes off the observation as jealousy and idle gossip.
Within Malcolm X, Baines was the one that brought Malcolm into the NOI. (I think in the book some of Malcolm’s siblings were NOI and played a role in bringing him into the fold. And there was also an issue with a sibling later being excommunicated.) Bains and Muhammad welcomed Malcolm into the Nation of Islam and taught him his catechism. Yet, by this point, he’s surpassed Baines and is probably only second to Muhammad in terms of notoriety, and that’s arguably only within the NOI. It’s likely unintentional but in a sense like outshining the master.
Some random man walks up to Malcolm and makes some rude remarks about Malcolm’s relationship with Muhammad and is quickly yoked up and given the heave-ho. His point is proven valid but his delivery was just all wrong. Malcolm took the time to listen to him but instead of clearly stating his point, he opted to be rude and offensive. Your delivery can sometimes affect your credibility. That leads to Malcolm and Betty sitting down and having an uncomfortable conversation.
At this point, they are married and already have a few children but Malcolm is constantly traveling and otherwise away from home for work. Meanwhile, Betty is at home taking care of the kids but doesn’t feel they’re receiving the support that they need from the NOI. The home they live in and other resources made available are not owned by them. They have a roof over their head and food in their bellies. But based on the work that Malcolm is doing their family is not reaping the same benefits as those of other men who are doing far less and are home more. That’s one issue.
And this gives way to one of the best scenes in Malcolm X because here it is that you have Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett in a very dramatic scene in their full glory. They have what’s a rather civilized argument (an example that a lot of couples can benefit from). Malcolm is away from home and has a lot going on with work but doesn’t feel comfortable bringing those problems home. Betty cares about him and noticing the unspoken elephant in the room, decides to broach the topic.
It was easy enough to dismiss the man who asked Malcolm if he was Muhammad’s pimp because of his ridiculous approach. Not so easy to ignore when Betty is pointing out that something inappropriate is afoot. Thus far she’s been incredibly supportive of Malcolm and thus the NOI. So when she as a very unproblematic person begins raising questions, Malcolm reacts angrily but has to consider that she might have a point.
As Malcolm points out during their argument, Baines was the one that saved him when he was in prison and helped to turn his life around. Muhammad further helped him along his journey after he left prison. These two men were like fathers to Malcolm and have been a huge part of his salvation. To find out that the things they’ve been teaching you and the value system they’ve put in place are things that they aren’t living up to might cause a person to have a crisis of faith.
Betty points out that these people did great things for Malcolm but that was quite some time ago. He doesn’t owe them forever and has made great contributions to the NOI. It stands to reason that if he doubts what she’s saying, he should at the very least investigate the validity of these claims for himself. She questions his blind loyalty and willingness to ignore what is going on around him.
After sitting down to speak with the multiple women who have accused Muhammad of fathering their children, he sits down with Muhammad himself and it crushes Malcolm to realize that there is truth to the accusations. It calls into question everything that he’s believed and this way of life. Muhammad explains his actions as him being human. But it’s one thing to make a mistake and never do it again versus making excuses for your actions and continuing to do the same thing. That’s no longer a mistake, it’s a pattern of behavior.
Usually, it’s selfish to have affairs but otherwise only the directly involved parties’ business. If you’re not interested in monogamy, don’t get married or be in a supposedly exclusive relationship. Stay single and just do what you want without the lying and hassle. I do not exalt leaders, religious or otherwise, so while I don’t assume that they’re all on nonsense, I’m not surprised when they are.
Had Muhammad been accused of sleeping with some random women outside the organization or far removed from his position that would be one thing. But it seems like an abuse of power to be carrying on with secretaries and women who aren’t just distant members of the NOI. It’s also hypocritical to have all these rules, regulations, and teach men to distrust women only to then turn around and have affairs with them.
Malcolm provided commentary on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy with the infamous chickens coming home to roost analogy. He essentially pointed out that the assassination was a result of American society making it ok to commit acts of violence against not just Black people in America but anyone around the world with whom America disagreed or had a problem. The hate, vitriol, and violence that America had sent out came back to America.
To play devil’s advocate, Muhammad made a valid point that the country was in mourning for a political figure who was well-respected. And sometimes you have to know when to say things. It’s not that you’re wrong but rather that your timing might be off. But speaking on your timeline goes along with speaking truth to power in the sense that you don’t allow others to dictate when or how you speak. If Malcolm observed other people’s preferred timelines or what subjects they were comfortable discussing, there would never be a good time for him to say anything.
The comment might have been too uncomfortably direct for some but it wasn’t offbase. I can think of very few instances where regardless of whatever wrong a person has done you might actively cheer or be happy that they died. It doesn’t seem like Malcolm was heartbroken or happy that Kennedy was killed but rather that he wasn’t surprised given the climate of the period. America has a history of utilizing violence to eliminate individuals who have different opinions or where there is a threat to its interests. Consider the number of coups and assassinations that America has backed if not played an active part.
It’s not far-fetched to say that America made it acceptable for people to try to get their way through political acts of violence. If you put that kind of energy out into the world, you shouldn’t be surprised that someone who considers themselves at odds with you might resort to similar actions. Violence begets violence and while those two wrongs don’t make a right, fair exchange is still no robbery. You can’t do wrong to someone else and then be upset when someone does wrong to you.
I’ve never really been betrayed by anyone or at least not in any matter of importance. But this is something that constantly crops up when you have a figurehead leading a movement. They are an easily identifiable target. Thus I lean more towards Ella Baker’s perspective that work in a movement can be done by strong individuals and strong individuals don’t need leaders.
On a case-by-case basis, you might need someone to be the organizer or decision-maker to keep everyone on track. But the organization can be flat and decentralized, if you teach and properly train the people. The right individuals would be more than capable of leading themselves. If you cultivate within individuals, the self-belief that they can do what’s necessary and provide them with relevant tools then they can lead themselves.
Look at the Civil Rights Movement where you had all of these very prominent figures heading various organizations and factions. As they gained notoriety, they became lightning rods for attention. On the one hand, this is useful because it can bring a great deal of attention to particular issues and activities from a media perspective. But it can also be a weakness because some followers can become overly dependent on the leader. And if the leader is imprisoned, assassinated, or otherwise removed from power the organization and movement can sometimes fall apart.
People also have to safeguard themselves against becoming blind followers. It’s imperative that you think for yourself and not worship anyone regardless of their ideology or whatever role they have played in your life. Malcolm speaks about basically worshipping Elijah Muhammad. But as he comes to understand and accept what is happening within the NOI, Malcolm tells Muhammad’s mistresses to not put their faith or trust in the leader of the NOI but rather Allah. They are Muslims and while I’m not thoroughly knowledgeable about the religion, I assume they should all be worshipping Allah rather than a man who walks the earth just like them.
You can certainly learn from and be inspired by another person but you shouldn’t be worshipping or basing your faith on another human being. We’re all individuals. We came into this world by ourselves and while other people might be present in our lives, we’re going to die by ourselves. That’s not to say that you can’t believe in someone’s ideology, offer support, or otherwise be a member of a group movement. But you’re getting into dangerous territory when you make an icon out of other human beings.
Hypocrisy is one thing as I’m not for people promoting themselves as being one thing but then living a different kind of life. That’s wrong. But at the same time, people are human beings, and as I’ve said countless times you don’t spend every waking moment with any person but yourself. The only person that you can say that you know in and out, is yourself. You need to accept personal accountability for yourself, be responsible for yourself, and live in line with your philosophy. But you definitely shouldn’t be worshipping at another human being’s altar. You’d be setting yourself up for disappointment because people are imperfect.
Rejection is protection and sometimes things not working out in your favor might seem like a setback. But when you look back on it years later, things worked out to prevent you from going down a path that wasn’t for you and put you on the right path. When Malcolm was running with West Indian Archie, he didn’t care about himself or anything else. Because he didn’t care about living it allowed him to be very reckless. Had he not gotten into it with West Indian Archie, left Harlem, and then gone to prison Malcolm would have very likely gotten himself killed, killed someone else, or otherwise destroyed his life.
When Malcolm meets up with West Indian Archie it’s now years later and it looks like he’s had a stroke. His illness isn’t the issue as anyone can become sick. The problem is that he’s living in a small messy apartment, is behind on his rent, and none of his old friends are around. He seemed like he had money and was living a great life earlier but he was only winning in the short term, the long term he’s not doing too hot. His mental ability with numbers should have enabled him to do more with his life. Long term none of the people that Malcolm hung around in his youth are doing much of anything with their lives.
At the moment, it was probably heartbreaking because being censured by and then breaking from the NOI probably felt like losing your father and some of your brothers as well. This spiritual and social organization that you’ve become a part of and helped expand is now gone. And while the loss itself hurts, how it occurred feels like a betrayal.
But while going to prison introduced Malcolm to Islam and the NOI, his break with the NOI gave Malcolm the freedom to be his own person and representative in the world. He might not have had an opportunity to go on Hajj if he still had all of his NOI responsibilities.
Malcolm was able to speak more freely and to also explore ideas, reach out, and collaborate with people that he might have dismissed in the past. That’s not to say that the NOI banned him from doing any of those things but rather that he likely had more flexibility and didn’t need to check in with anyone. He apologized for the unkind things that he’d said about other civil rights leaders in the past and forgave whatever they might have said about him.
Stepping out of his comfort zone resulted in Malcolm developing a more nuanced and complex perspective with regards to White people as well. He came to recognize that some genuine White people wanted to help and assist in making things better. But he still held firm to the belief that Black people needed to do work within themselves as individuals and then as a group before collaborating or joining with other groups no matter how well-intentioned. It’s like, we as Black people need to do our work over here and you can contribute by leaving us to it and doing your work over there.
Malcolm had been to other parts of America as he’d opened mosques across the country. But his first time outside the country was probably when he made the Hajj. Seeing Islam in practice beyond the Nation of Islam and people outside of America expanded his mind. He thought he had the full story but hadn’t been looking at the full picture. And with that came Malcolm’s final transformation: el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz.
I can’t even count how many times I’ve watched Malcolm X but for several years as soon as I got to the part with Sam Cooke singing “A Change is Going to Come”, I would just turn the movie off. I knew the ending and how things turned out in real life but just couldn’t watch that scene over and over again. And I don’t even want to discuss it here. (I came quite close to turning it off during this viewing but my mom had joined in watching Malcolm X with me.)
Watching more closely on this viewing, I more clearly noticed the juxtaposition of Malcolm and his father throughout the film. Malcolm’s father died when he was very young so he played a limited physical role in his life. But consider early on in Malcolm X, jumping back and forth between Malcolm and his father and then later in the film where Malcolm has left the NOI and is being harassed and threatened.
For example, in the scene where a firebomb is thrown at the house, Malcolm and Betty have to gather up the kids and try to get to safety. And then there’s the scene of Malcolm’s mother and father gathering up the children while the house was burning. What are the odds that all of these years later Malcolm would end up having moments in his life that so closely mirrored moments from his father’s life?
I’d never really picked up on the comparisons. Malcolm was lost as a young man and he got away from the example that his father had set. But upon finding himself and achieving mental maturity, he found his way back to that path and was once again walking in his father’s footsteps. Unfortunately, much like his father, Malcolm ultimately gave his life as well for speaking out against the ill-treatment of Black people.
Unless a person commits suicide or is sentenced to execution, most of us will not have advanced knowledge of the exact date and time that our death will occur. But with activists such as Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. there’s a sense that they had a feeling that death was looming near the time of their assassination. People live in fear of death despite it being possibly years or even decades in the future. Yet, even when facing physical attacks and outright threats, neither man shrank from what he perceived as his mission.
To know that your life is at risk and your enemies might attack or murder you at any moment is a heavy burden to carry. At this particular time, you had these normal people who decided to be extraordinary by sacrificing their personal lives, comfort, and happiness in pursuit of trying to bring about much-needed change. They tried to do good only to find themselves in the crosshairs of those hoping to maintain the status quo. To get up every morning, try your best to ignore those threats, and continue on your path is a sign of incredible courage.
Years ago, I wrote an essay for college about The Autobiography of Malcolm X being the most impactful book that I’ve ever read. (And I’ve read a lot of books.) Mainstream media when it does discuss Malcolm X presents him as being racist. But as with most things the speaker likely hasn’t dived deep enough into the subject and is just making assumptions based on what they’ve heard elsewhere.
I’ve always viewed Malcolm X as a story about transformation. Malcolm learned and grew as a person throughout his relatively short life. He began his life as Malcolm Little and became Detroit Red. Malcolm went to prison where they called him “The Devil” or something along those lines. But while in prison he became Malcolm X and then later el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. His story is not about Black supremacy but rather Black people rejecting the idea of white supremacy and black inferiority and developing esteem within ourselves as Black people. He told his own story as a means of motivating Black people to see the beauty and capabilities within themselves despite society trying to convince Black people that we should hate ourselves.
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