Malcolm X speaks to a new generation of young people

November 18, 1992|By Sandra Crockett and Jean Marbella | Sandra Crockett and Jean Marbella,Staff Writers

He was a political leader of passionate beliefs, assassinated a generation before they were born. They are teen-agers, left cold by today's leaders but moved to both anger and hope by the story of the man behind the legend.

The movie was Spike Lee's "Malcolm X," which traces the charismatic leader's evolution from petty hustler to Nation of Islam convert to the more conciliatory and independent spokesman for African-American empowerment. The teens were 10 local students invited by The Sun to a special showing of the highly anticipated movie last week and to share their thoughts on it.

Some entered the theater more knowledgeable than others about the slain leader whose popularity has surged in recent years. But they all said they left -- some in tears, others chattering excitedly -- with a better understanding of the complexity of Malcolm X's life as well as the continuing work that he left behind for future generations such as their own.

"People think they know about him but they don't," said Dawan Cornish, a 15-year-old black student at Bryn Mawr, and the only one in the group who has read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" in its entirety.

"Before I read the book, I had misconceptions and didn't know a lot about him," Dawan said. "Having the movie is good because so many people don't read. Seeing the movie should be a first step. But the book goes through a more in-depth process."

Dawan and the other students were chosen from area schools with the help of school administrators.

Priscilla Brown, a 17-year-old black student at Dunbar High School, says her impression of Malcolm X was "of a violent, anti-white man." But that was before seeing the movie. "Now, I understand his reasons for doing things," she says.

An Asian student, 17-year-old John Lim, thought of the slain leader as a "slightly prejudiced man." But the Park School student left the movie saying he understood why Malcolm X turned against whites during a period of his life. "The movie showed he had a hard life and he was deprived as a child, like when he was in school and his teacher told him he couldn't be a lawyer because he was black -- even though he had the best grades."

"I had heard that he was always against white people, but the movie showed he was for people coming together," said Nick DeLeonardis, a 15-year-old white student at Milford Mill High School. "But I didn't realize how much courage he had. He was brave enough to say his message."

Despite the students' diverse backgrounds and philosophies, they showed similar youthful enthusiasm about the movie and its implications for their own world. None could think of any political leader today whose message resonates the way Malcolm X's does, especially in the black community.

"Politicians sugarcoat their words. They are too scared today to say what they really mean," said Javonn Curtis, 15, a black student at Milford Mill.

The movie's message for Tynell Briggs, 18, who is black and attends Douglass High School, was twofold: To follow your own mind -- instead of the crowd's -- and that "it might take a little force to get yourself free."

Both the movie and the students drew parallels between Malcolm X's times and now, between the racism of the past and the racial tensions that erupted in the wake of Rodney King beating.

"I thought it was interesting how the movie opened, with the [American] flag burning and showing the Rodney King beating. I thought Spike Lee was trying to say that the country is hypocritical -- that what it says isn't what it does," said Daryl Crone, 17, a white student at Park School.

Several of the black students were impressed with Malcolm X's message that blacks needed to be self-sufficient rather than rely on a largely white government and its handouts.

"Things are not going to improve if you depend on the government and white people. You have to do it yourself," Dawan Cornish said, adding that she liked the fact that black Muslims call for blacks to develop their own economy. "The Nation of Islam has a lot of faults, but they're positive, too, in a way: They tell the black man not to do drugs, they talk about the need for black education and black self-sufficiency."

And in fact, the movie itself is a testament to this, another student said.

"One thing that's important is black people paid for the movie," Javonn Curtis said, noting that when Spike Lee went over-budget for the $34 million movie, he raised funds from black celebrities such as Magic Johnson and Bill Cosby.

The movie caused the students to think about race relations, especially the responsibilities that their particular races should bear.

Ben Guest, 17, a white Baltimorean who attends Park School, said he hoped the movie would jolt people of his race into confronting the racial tensions that still plague the country.

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