Excited was not the emotion when I heard that Netflix was running a documentary about Malcolm X’s assassination. Skeptical would be a better one, but who-dun-its are the flavor of the month with crime-related stories littering Netflix, television, film, and podcasts. Hence, it was not surprising that his murder would be the vehicle for a mainstream audience. When I saw there were six episodes, one named “Legacy,” my spirit lifted a bit. Perhaps the murder was just the way in to really talk about the life and impact of one of the most important figures of the twentieth century. Sadly, after almost 6 hours of film about Malcolm, I was left disappointed, frustrated, and maybe appropriately for the man himself, angry.
‘Who Killed Malcolm X?’ wasn’t all bad. It was clear the filmmakers cared deeply about the subject, particularly Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, who has been trying to get the truth for years. The speeches, images, and stories of Malcolm’s message to so many generations leaped from the screen. Introducing new audiences to Malcolm’s intelligence, passion, and humor can never be a bad thing. It was clear that Malcolm was necessary and had a message for today. Unfortunately, though, what he was saying was lost in translation from idea to streaming service.
The focus on his assassination took away from any real examination of Malcolm’s legacy. Only one of the real killers was caught, and the documentary focused on trying to track down the man wielding the shotgun, who technically delivered the fatal blow. The least interesting part of his life was his death; the most insignificant part of his murder was who pulled the trigger. It is well known that members of the NOI assassinated Malcolm and highly suspected that the FBI and NYPD played either passive or active roles. Those threads are pulled in the documentary, but the focus becomes trigger man. Malcolm’s assassination is a good way to get into the bigger questions by exploring why the authorities wanted him killed, which can only be answered by looking into Malcolm’s life and work.
Malcolm was not just killed at a “rally,” as the documentary suggests. He was speaking at a meeting of the Organisation of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), which he founded in 1964. The OAAU is mentioned once in episode four, following an established trend of rinsing it from his legacy. The organization barely featured in the Autobiography of Malcolm X published after he died, even though Alex Haley, who ghostwrote it, had pages of notes about it. The omission carried over into Spike Lee’s film based on the book. Rubbing out the OAAU allows people to remember Malcolm as a fiery speaker with no political program, an image of pride for the marginalized but merely a symbol. This is the Malcolm that comes through in the documentary.
While he was a member of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm was monitored and seen as a potential threat by the authorities. The FBI feared he would take over the NOI because it had thousands of members and a paramilitary Fruit of Islam. Under Malcolm’s direction, the NOI could have posed a serious threat. But Malcolm was always at odds with the politics of the NOI. While he argued for radical change and connected with revolutionary leaders worldwide, the NOI was built for religious, not political, liberation. According to the NOI, it is for Allah to deliver. Therefore there is no need to organize for revolution, simply to join the NOI, observe their principles, and separate from the soon-to-be annihilated white devils. Malcolm realized the extent of the limitations of this position when he was prevented from reacting to the police murder of Ronald Stokes in 1962 and suspended for calling the death of popular president JFK “chickens coming home to roost.” The NOI do not want to rock the boat before their rapture and therefore like to keep the powers that be happy.
Malcolm was always destined to leave, and when he did, he founded the OAAU based on his Black radical principles. A global organization rooted in local coordination, whose aim was to build enough support to provide a real alternative to the racist system. As Kwame Ture observed, Malcolm’s “basic ideology was Garveyism,” and he was determined to build the global Black nation. With his international contacts and mass public appeal, he was simply too dangerous to be left alive. The NOI gladly obliged in ending his life because Malcolm had started an alternative Black Muslim mosque and vowed to save the thousands of people he had recruited into the NOI from what he saw as an illegitimate organization. A lesson for many today is that you cannot be pro-NOI and pro-Malcolm.
On the 55th anniversary of his assassination, it is imperative that we remember Malcolm’s life and his legacy. The OAAU is the blueprint for Black radical politics today. Rather than hear why from me, read the speech at the Second Founding Rally of the OAAU that Malcolm himself delivered. Also, take the opportunity to listen to Malcolm’s speeches, which are almost prophetic in how he understands racism in ways many are only starting to grasp almost six decades after his death. If, after all, that you are still wondering why Malcolm is relevant, then my favorite talk to give is “What Would Malcolm Say?” which should leave you in no doubt that we need the work, passion, and solution of Malcolm X today as much as we ever did.
“We need a self-help program, a do-it-yourself philosophy, a do-it-right-now philosophy, a it’s-already-too-late philosophy…if you’re Black, you should be thinking Black. And if you’re Black and you not thinking Black at this late date, well, I’m sorry for you”Malcolm X, The Ballot or the Bullet, 1964