Today marks the 53rd anniversary of Malcolm X‘s assassination. Since his death, supporters of the human rights activist have learned much more about X, born Malcolm Little, a complex man who was often simplified to Martin Luther King Jr.‘s villainous counterpart.
Malcolm X: An Overwhelming Influence on the Black Power Movement offers a straightforward but informative introduction into X’s life. Directed by Thomas Muhammad, the documentary follows A. Peter Bailey, a journalist and lecturer who was a former worker of X’s, as he travels throughout the country to meet family and friends that knew the activist personally.
Through stories from Bailey, Earl Grant (X’s close friend and confidant), and Malaak Shabazz (X’s youngest daughter), Muhammad manages to humanize the activist in a way not often portrayed.
Although the two were (and still are) pitted against each other, X had the utmost respect for King, with Bailey recounting how the former tried to visit the latter while he was in jail in Selma, Alabama, but officers wouldn’t let him. He ultimately met with King’s wife, Coretta, and assured her that if anything happened to her husband, someone would be held accountable.
Another notable moment came toward the end of the film, when Grant recounts the day of X’s death. X had asked a strange request of Grant — to go outside of Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom and make a phone call (a service often handled by his secretaries). Grant’s voice begins to break as he remembers the chaos that ensued following X’s shooting, only to reveal to viewers that X made him go outside to keep him alive.
“I would’ve had my back to the crowd when the shooting started. I’m here today because he saw to it that I didn’t get killed that day,” Grant says.
Unfortunately, this is as insightful as Malcolm X gets. Muhammad focuses too much on X’s background instead of weaving it in with new commentary or insight on the activist. There are attempts, such as when Bailey and retired Dallas Civil Rights activist Reverend Zan Holmes Jr. discuss how X was leverage for King’s political gains, as well as how the two were on a trajectory to share similar economic and political goals prior to their assassinations.
But the discussions are treated as footnotes and not explored further, leaving the two iconic activists to mere parallels.
Malcolm X also fails to contextualize X’s influence on the Black Power movement. Without X it’s arguable that a foundation for the likes of the Black Panther Party, as well as leaders such as Huey Newton, Fred Hampton, Assata Shakur, and Angela Davis wouldn’t exist. Although his perspective changed following his departure from the Nation of Islam, X’s separatist, black supremacist beliefs were an integral part of the movements and leaders that succeeded him. But Muhammad doesn’t talk to any former Black Panther members about this nor utilizes any archival footage to help convey this connection.
When considering previous X documentaries such as Malcolm X: Make It Plain or Brother Minister: The Assassination of Malcolm X, it’s hard to not want more from Muhammad’s movie. At times the director manages to present something new about the activist in speaking with people who were so close to him. But the documentary seems unsure of what exactly it’s trying to tell. Is it trying to tell X’s early life? Is it trying to tell his impact on the Black Power movement? Is it trying to tell his dynamic with King? Considering the intimate bonds Muhammad’s interviewees had with X, he would’ve had a much stronger film if he focused on that instead of trying to handle so much at once.
Malcolm X functions more as a visual introduction into the activist’s life than anything else, its narrative ideal for grade school and even college classrooms. But beyond that the documentary doesn’t capture what its title suggests; Muhammad created a film that has potential but lacks a true sense of direction.