By translating The Autobiography of Malcolm X into a visual document, filmmaker Arnold Perl performed a useful historical service, condensing and contextualizing the turbulent life that transformed troubled orphan Malcolm Little into black-power activist Malcolm X and religious messenger el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. Within a tight 91-minute running time, Perl covers many of the important periods in his subject’s life, tracking Malcolm through a rough childhood and adolescence marked by abandonment and crime; a long period serving as an articulate emissary for controversial Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad; an incendiary stretch preaching racial revolution and vilifying the “white devil”; and finally the crucially important final period when, after making a pilgrimage to Mecca, he sought to reconcile his supercharged political rhetoric with the peaceful teachings of his religion.
Framing the whole story, of course, is the grim reality that Malcolm was assassinated, so instead of being a hagiographic tribute to a mythic figure, Malcolm X represents a passionate delivery of the man’s message. Perl’s portrayal embraces all of the changes and contradictions that made Malcolm intriguing, and this portrayal underscores that Malcolm possessed one of the most agile minds in the history of American political life.
The film opens on a somewhat heavy-handed note, with Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” (the lyrics of which describe the aftermath of a lynching) playing over a black screen. The opening salvo continues with Malcolm’s famous “by any means necessary” remark, as well as an epithet-filled spoken-word piece by the Last Poets that, prophetically, sounds a lot like rap. Once Perl gets into proper storytelling, he juxtaposes short excerpts from The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as recited in voiceover by James Earl Jones) with a voluminous amount of archival footage. Sometimes, Perl illustrates points with newsreel shots of, say, civil unrest, but mostly he puts Malcolm onscreen.
Appearing in public and on TV, Malcolm communicates with supreme eloquence and power, whether he’s expressing deference to Elijah Muhammed, disdain for whites, or a sophisticated synthesis of his past belief systems. As in real life, the Malcolm at the end of the story is the truly dangerous man, not because of his ability to drive people apart—anyone can do that—but because of his ability to bring people together. While stopping short of lodging a formal accusation, the film advances the prevailing theory that the Nation of Islam was responsible for Malcolm’s death. The notion that a black revolutionary might have died at black hands reaffirms the eternal truth that anyone with real power to alter the status quo exercises that power at his or her own peril.
Prior to the release of Spike Lee’s epic biopic Malcolm X (1992), this documentary likely represented the fairest and fullest screen portrayal of its subject, and the existence of Lee’s movie has done nothing to diminish the documentary’s significance. Indeed, Warner Bros. (which released both projects) has on occasion packaged the movies together for home-video consumption. The films complement each other well, with Lee’s picture offering a personal view of a heroic figure and Perl’s documentary letting Malcolm speak his own truth. Accolades received by the 1972 Malcolm X during its original run include an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature.
Malcolm X: GROOVY