Malcolm X is defined in compelling portrait on PBS

January 26, 1994|By Greg Dawson | Greg Dawson,Orlando Sentinel

PBS clears out 2 1/2 hours tonight for the documentary "Malcolm X: Make It Plain" (8 to 10:30, WMPT, Channel 22 and Channel 67) -- a programming decision viewers might greet with a "done that, seen that" sense of deja vu.

They should think again, for "Make It Plain" vividly proves that for all his newfound celebrity, we are still in the process of discovering the essential Malcolm X.

It's safe to say that a decade ago, eight out of 10 people on the street didn't know the name Malcolm X.

It's safe to say because no one was taking polls like that a decade ago, so there's nothing to say I'm wrong. But I believe that's a roughly accurate guess.

If such a poll were taken today, the result would probably be reversed. Spike Lee's 1992 film "Malcolm X" had a lot to do with making the slain black leader a household word and -- in accordance with natural laws of celebrity in America -- a product. Witness the flowering of "X" caps and other Malcolm memorabilia.

But another natural law of the TV age is that notoriety and sales run far ahead of public knowledge. The number of people who have actually seen Mr. Lee's movie or read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" is dwarfed by those who "know" Malcolm X as a sort of cultural brand name, like Madonna or Beavis and Butt-head.

It would have been inconceivable, a decade ago, for Malcolm X to turn up in the dialogue of a common TV movie, as he did Monday in "Mantis," a Fox sci-fi flick.

Early in the movie, a racist candidate for mayor was telling a reporter how he would deal with gang violence.

"As mayor, I will be prepared to fight back by any means necessary," he said.

A TV technician working the interview remarked, "Am I on Mars, or did he just quote Malcolm?"

Yes, he had lifted Malcolm X's "by any means necessary" phrase, though it's likely the target audience for "Mantis" didn't get the quote, much less the irony of this character's using it.

So despite, or maybe because of, Malcolm X's meteoric posthumous rise to media superstardom, I suspect most people's knowledge about him is anecdotal -- that there are large voids in the public mind about exactly who he was and why his photo would hang on the wall of Roc Emerson's house on the Fox series "Roc."

Anyone who abhors that vacuum and wants to know the man behind the "X" caps and T-shirts can do no better than "Make It Plain," an absorbing cradle-to-grave documentary, the most definitive portrait of the man this side of his autobiography.

Two and a half hours is a modest allotment. Rarely does a life go through as many, or complex, changes as Malcolm X's did in the 39 years before he died in a hail of bullets at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City in 1965.

Three years in production, "Make It Plain" is the work of award-winning filmmakers whose credits include "Eyes on the Prize" and "The Great Depression." The narrator is actress Alfre Woodard.

What sets "Make It Plain" apart from previous documentaries about Malcolm X is the testimony of 28 people who knew or loved or encountered him, ranging from Mike Wallace to actor Ossie Davis to author Maya Angelou. But the most fascinating comments come from members of Malcolm's family who have never before spoken on the record, including two brothers, Wilfred X and Philbert X.

The film briskly traces Malcolm X's tortuous route through life, from a promising childhood gone sour, to petty criminality, spiritual rehabilitation and his stormy relationship with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Through generous use of archive footage, the producers convey the magnetism, intelligence and surprising charm of the man.

The title, "Make It Plain," refers to Malcolm X's distaste for affectation.

"Do you consider yourself militant?" a TV interviewer asks.

He flashes his disarming grin. "I consider myself Malcolm."

"Make It Plain" gives us Malcolm, plain and anything but simple.

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