Behind the `Malcolm X' Film: A Need to Set Things Straight

Article excerpt

MORE than 25 years after the assassination of Malcolm X, a struggle is under way to define the meaning of his life.

Books, magazine and newspaper articles, and television documentaries are being churned out in an attempt to analyze this influential African-American.

The engine driving most of the current interest is the new film "Malcolm X." It was No. 3 at the box office last weekend, its first in release, taking in more than $14 million. The numbers have been especially impressive because the film's 3-hour, 21-minute length means it can be screened only three times per day, compared with five times a day for most films.

Director Spike Lee, actor Denzel Washington, and Malcolm X's widow and daughter, all of whom were involved in the making of the film, say they hope the picture will be more than just a commercial success, that it will correct long-standing misimpressions.

During a round-table discussion in New York recently, they were asked what they thought the biggest misconception was.

"That he was angry all the time, and that he was violent," said Mr. Washington, who plays Malcolm X in the film. "He wasn't violent. He made perfect sense. He said if someone is blowing up your church and killing your babies and lynching your father or grandfather, and your government is unwilling or unable to protect you, then you should protect yourself. That's not violence, that's intelligence."

"The greatest myth is that he was violent," agreed Betty Shabazz, widow of Malcolm X and project consultant for the movie. "My husband was not violent. He was never part of any violence. The only violence was his death, and he did not commit it...."

"He said {there should be} freedom and respect for members of the African diaspora ... by any means necessary," Dr. Shabazz said. "That's not a violent statement, it's a comprehensive statement.... It means you might accomplish your ends by political or social or religious or academic activities.... Malcolm's point was that if you are a member of the human family, as we are all made in the image of God and the likeness of God, then all of us should be able to aspire to positions of influence and gravity."

To Attilah Shabazz, Malcolm X's oldest daughter, the biggest misconception is "that he was inspired by anger, motivated by vengeance." She has been helping to promote the film, and also runs a well-established theater and film production company (Nucleus Incorporated) with Martin Luther King Jr.'s daughter.

Malcolm X was not speaking "angrily" as a mature civil-rights leader, Ms. Shabazz asserted, "but was pointing out issues that people were not talking about in the '60s, because {these issues} were away from the mainstream.... Of course he was serious, focused, dedicated. He knew his self-worth and was hoping that people would get a sense of their own self-worth.... But when he came home, I saw a warm human being - not in spite of his day's work, but inclusive of his day's work. I got to see someone who loved my mother, who nurtured his children." Choosing an upbeat finale

This vision of a humane and temperate Malcolm X sheds light on Mr. Lee's decision to follow the movie's tragic assassination scene with an upbeat finale - incorporating such figures as actor Ossie Davis and activist Nelson Mandela - that emphasizes the positive side of Malcolm X's life and work. (An upcoming TV special searches for the "real" Malcolm X. Story, Page 14.)

Lee himself says he feels anger at the condition of blacks both in Malcolm X's era and today. Still, the thrust of his movie is not an expression of undiluted anger and frustration; it is more complex and multifaceted.

"I think one can be hopeful and angry at the same time," he told the round table, "because that's what I am. …