Last week, my mother and I had a discussion about the actor Denzel Washington, who is widely regarded as one of Hollywood’s greatest stars. For both of us, his role as civil rights figure Malcolm X (1925-1965) in 1992 biopic ‘Malcolm X‘, was a shining moment in which he showed the world his talent as an actor and Spike Lee’s known skills as a powerful filmmaker. I had been contemplating my next book to read and came across this biography by late author Manning Marable (1950-2011). I had previously read The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley and Bruce Perry’s Malcolm: THe Life of Man Who Changed America . The former is a classic read widely across the globe. Perry’s biography is a great read and addressed many topics that Haley did not include. Stepping into the picture is Marable with this phenomenal biography that surpasses Perry’s and provides an even more intimate look into Malcolm’s life.
One of the hardest parts of completing a project as daunting as a biography is separating fact from fiction. Marable exhaustively researched his subject and it clearly shows throughout the book. The amount of information in the book is staggering and will leave many readers speechless at times. I cannot say with certainty how much information Spike Lee had access to when making the film. But what is clear from reading this book is that there is a good chance some things were withheld from him by those with intimate knowledge of Malcolm’s life and that editing the film down to three hours and twenty-two minutes resulted in a fair amount of footage ending up on the cutting room floor. Regardless, Lee created a masterpiece of a film. However, there was far more to Malcolm’s life than what moviegoers saw and some of that information shows his life and the Nation of Islam in a whole new light.
No story about Malcolm is complete without mention of Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975), the former leader of the Nation of Islam. His influence on Malcolm’s life and their subsequent falling out is covered extensively in the book. I personally learned new information that I had never anticipated when I started the book. As to be expected, Malcolm’s time with the Nation of Islam, his marriage to Betty Shabazz (1934-1997) and the creation of Muslim Mosque, Inc. make up large portion of the second half of the book. And it truly is a story that is surreal at times. Undoubtedly the book carries a serious tone but there are bright moments in the book, some of which focus on Malcolm’s time outside of the United States. His visits to the Middle East, which helped shape and then change his views are pivotal moments in the book, showing the process of reinvention that he goes through as he matures.
Some of the reviews I read on Amazon were interesting but one in particular caught my attention for its critique of Marable’s discussion of Malcolm’s sexuality in his youth. I do not believe that Marable tainted Malcolm’s image or was irresponsible in the way that he chose to handle the subject matter. In fact, Bruce Perry also addressed it in his biography of Malcolm and there is a strong possibility that both authors were on the right track. Marable devotes a very small portion of the book to the subject and I think he made the right decision. And the overall story is so interesting that I believe most readers will go through the section and quickly move forward to the rest of the book.
One of the book’s major strengths is the author’s willingness to take on even the most sensitive parts of Malcolm’s life. In fact, there were many things revealed that I am sure the Nation of Islam would have killed to protect years ago. These events are not only about Malcolm’s life but they also reveal information about figures intimately involved in his life such a Minister Louis Farrakhan, Malcolm’s protege and Ella Little (1914-1996). Interestingly, both figures do not make an appearance in Lee’s film for reasons known to the filmmakers. Marable does provide some insight and what he reveals might surprise some readers. Civil rights figures such as Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), Dick Gregory (1932-2017) and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (1908-1972) are also part of the story and reading Marable’s words made me feel as if I stepped back into time during the tumultuous decade that was the 1960s. Readers who lived during the era will surely reminisce about a time in American history where fear permeated across the nation and the assassination of political figures was nearly commonplace.
About two-thirds through the book, the stage is set for Malcolm’s tragic end at the Audubon Ballroom. The tension and outright hostility between him and the NOI had reached a deadly level. Marable highlights the multiple attempts on Malcolm’s life and the escalation in fearmongering that ensued. The assassination is revisited from start to finish and the author sheds light on a few things that I had previously been unaware of. It is well-known the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) had been keeping Malcolm under surveillance. The paranoia of J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) was endless and he wasted no time in having his agents open a file for the Bureau’s benefit. But what is often left out of the discussion regarding Malcolm’s controversial life is the role of the secret Bureau of Special Services and Investigation (“BOSS”), formed by the New York City Police Department. The roles and actions of these two entities raise new questions about Malcolm’s death that remain unanswered. Perhaps in the next fifty years, more files will declassified and we may finally know the truth as to what state and federal agencies knew about Malcolm, the Nation of Islam and his murder on February 21, 1965.
The epilogue of the book is equally fascinating, and in it Marable opens a discussion about fundamental differences between Malcolm and other leaders of the times. Death was a constant threat in his life and he clearly knew that he had been marked for it but refused to live in fear. Throughout the book, he makes a series of decisions that we can now look at with the hindsight unavailable to him. At the time, he was following his beliefs and remained dedicated in his goal to spread true Islam to anyone willing to learn. His faults and transgressions are also on full display, showing us a multi-dimension yet often streamlined person that helped place the Nation of Islam into the national spotlight. He is revered around the world as a champion of civil rights and a brilliant mind taken from this world far before his time. There is so much more to his story contained within the pages of this book which is an exceptional work that will cause one to ask, how much do I really know about Malcolm X? Here is a good place to start.