Marketing Malcolm X For merchants of trendy items, there's no doubt about what letter is going to spell profits

November 17, 1992|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,New York Bureau

New York -- Put on your best X-wear, break open your bag of X-chips and get ready to get X-cited, because America's marketing machine has zeroed in on its newest target: Malcolm X, movie star.

In high gear to capitalize on tomorrow's release of director Spike Lee's film, "Malcolm X," the flow of X-stuff seems to know no limits. Caps, shirts, belts, calendars, automobile air fresheners and even potato chips are now graced by the simple letter "X" in hopes that the leader's surname, once synonymous with militancy, will now strike a chord with consumers.

Two New York locations have become the prime sellers of Malcolm X paraphernalia: Mr. Lee's pricey gift shop in Brooklyn featuring Malcolm X pins, necklaces, books and T-shirts; and the innumerable vendors around Times Square hawking unlicensed baseball caps and jerseys emblazoned with an X.

Mr. Lee and Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X's widow, have said the products will help spark a greater interest in Malcolm X, who was born Malcolm Little in 1925 and was assassinated in 1965.

"It's not enough to wear the shirt or cap," Mr. Lee said. "You have to read about him."

Ms. Shabazz, who declined comment, has hired Curtis Management Group, an Indianapolis company that manages scores of celebrities or their estates, to protect the name from being pirated. (The company also represents the estates of James Dean, Humphrey Bogart and Babe Ruth.) Curtis spokeswoman Stephanie Osha said at least five companies have been sued for using the X without Ms. Shabazz's permission. Another 40 companies with 160 products, including the air freshener, have been licensed.

"The control extends to X when it refers to Malcolm X. Somehow it's more than a letter -- it represents him. Of course, we're not going to sue Xavier College; we just want to protect his name," Ms. Osha said.

She declined to say how much money Ms. Shabazz would make from the licensed sales, but estates typically earn around 5 percent of sales. With about 80 percent of the projected $100 million in Malcolm X goods licensed, several million dollars will undoubtedly flow back to the family.

Malcolm X took the name X to represent the African surname lost to slavery. After a pilgrimage to Mecca he took the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

But because thousands of African-Americans took the surname X too, especially in the 1960s, some do not believe it right that Malcolm X's estate tries to monopolize the letter.Akilah Ali, a Philadelphia jeweler who makes a line of pins and pendants shaped like an X, said the name is part of African-Americans' shared history.

"Malcolm didn't own the X. It's true that the X is almost synonymous with him, but it's also other people's name too," Ms. Ali said.

Malcolm X's brother, Robert Little, said he finds it objectionable that his brother, who preached revolution and economic self-reliance for African-Americans, should be marketed by movie distributor Time Warner Inc., a major entertainment conglomerate with revenues last year of $11.5 billion, and sold by big retail stores.

"I would prefer seeing Malcolm's philosophy being put into practice than his face being portrayed on a shirt. He shouldn't be a fashion statement," said Mr. Little, who heads the New York City Child Welfare Administration.

Another prickly issue surrounding the marketing of Malcolm X is that many of the pirates selling his name are not African-American but Koreans, with whom New York's African-American community has had sometimes touchy relations.

Most of the baseball caps at Times Square, where an enormous X advertises the film, are made in Taiwan, Hong Kong or Korea. Korean fashion manufacturers also promoted clothing with an X logo at a recent fashion fair, saying they couldn't be expected to get caught short in the now-worldwide X-craze.

Even the Nation of Islam has been angry at Malcolm X's dilution and selling, although Malcolm X parted company with the Nation of Islam in 1964. The organization's newspaper said that "blacks again are witnessing the murder of Malcolm X, but this time it is the man's legacy the enemy is destroying; and they are doing it with the approval of black consumers."

But at Mr. Lee's store, Spike's Joint, a steady stream of customers recently flowed in asking for Malcolm X gear.

"People just want to be identified with what he stood for," said Phil, a customer from New Jersey. There's nothing wrong with that. People just like who he was."

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