His life was an ocean Lee gave us a pond

Gregory P. Kane

December 11, 1992|By Gregory P. Kane

DURING the summer of 1968, a classmate of mine at Cit College threw a copy of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" on my desk and urged me to read it. "Be open-minded," he advised, though the suggestion wasn't necessary.

I was hooked from the opening paragraph. I have not read before or since a biographical account which reads like classic drama, suspensefully building the rising action to a well-defined climax.

Spike Lee's movie has none of that suspense. It gives shallow, almost cursory treatment to the father-son relationship between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, and it misses the opportunity for the superb drama that played out as the differences between the two developed over the years.

Muhammad, more conservative, opposed activism of any kind and preferred to leave matters in Allah's hands. Malcolm, leader of the radical wing of the Nation of Islam, was evolving toward a Pan-Africanist outlook and preferred a more ecumenical approach.

When Patrice Lumumba, another Pan-Africanist and the first prime minister of the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) was murdered in 1961, American blacks protested at the United Nations. Malcolm would have joined them had it not been for the restrictions placed on him by Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad intervened again in April 1962, when Malcolm tried to organize a mass movement of blacks in Los Angeles to protest the police shooting of two members of the Nation of Islam.

Malcolm chafed under these restrictions. When he made his infamous "chickens coming home to roost" statement in 1963 in reference to the assassination of President Kennedy, the X-man wasn't making an anti-Kennedy, or even an anti-white, utterance. He was flinging down the gauntlet in direct defiance of two edicts issued by Elijah Muhammad. The first forbade any comment on the assassination. The second stipulated that Muslim ministers were not to comment if pressed for a response. Malcolm not only disobeyed both directives; he manipulated the press into asking the question by delivering a speech in which he made no fewer than 17 negative references to "the late president."

Such is the stuff of good drama. It's a pity Spike Lee didn't use it. It's also a pity that we get little, if any, inkling that Malcolm virtually single-handedly built the Nation of Islam membership from roughly 400 to 40,000. We don't learn from this film that he was the minister of four or five Muslim temples at one time; or that he put in 18- to 20-hour work days as he established a temple in one city and then moved on to another. We don't see him helping drug addicts kick the habit or alcoholics get off the bottle. We don't see him teaching etymology, history, current events and archaeology in adult education classes he set up at the Harlem mosque.

The Malcolm who read Greek classics, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Shakespeare and Milton's "Paradise Lost" is conspicuously absent from Spike Lee's "epic." While it is mentioned in passing that Malcolm founded the newspaper Muhammad Speaks, there is no indication that the journal eventually reached a weekly circulation of 600,000 and influence in and out of the Nation of Islam.

Spike Lee's Malcolm has no politics. But the real Malcolm showed political perspicacity on a national and international level that sometimes surpassed that of his civil rights contemporaries. Two years before Martin Luther King issued his "Declaration of Independence From the War in Vietnam," Malcolm gave this much shorter but just as effective statement in a panel discussion:

"Address myself to Vietnam for two minutes? It's a shame. [The Johnson administration] is trapped; it can't get out. If it pours more men in, it'll get deeper. If it pulls the men out, it's a defeat. And they should have known it in the first place . . . They put Diem over there. Diem took all of their money, all their war equipment and everything else and got them trapped. Then they killed him. Yes, they killed him, murdered him in cold blood . . . because they were embarrassed. They found out that they had made him strong and he was turning against them. So they killed him and put big Minh in his place . . . You know, when the puppet starts talking back to the puppeteer, the puppeteer is in bad shape."

When the Western powers propped up that notorious thug and quisling Moise Tshombe in the Belgian Congo in 1964-1965 to suppress pro-Lumumba rebels, Malcolm observed:

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