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Biography 23.1 (2000) 29-48

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Malcolm X: In Print, on Screen

Thomas Doherty


In a rare motion picture memory related in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the author sits in a Michigan theater watching Gone with the Wind (1939). "When Butterfly McQueen went into her act," he recalls bitterly, "I felt like crawling under the rug" (32). For the young Malcolm Little, as for black Americans everywhere, the classical Hollywood screen was an inventory of negative stereotypes and a 35mm projection of white power. When the mature man came to tell his own story, he naturally turned away from the moving image and toward the written word. Appropriately then, until lately, Malcolm X has been remembered most vividly through the remarkable memoir written "with the assistance of Alex Haley," his posthumous stature due preeminently to what has for years been the most popular autobiography of an African American in print. The Autobiography of Malcolm X--not documentaries or recordings of Malcolm's speeches--preserved and assured Malcolm's legacy after his murder at the Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965.

In 1992, however, the Malcolm X of the printed page ceded pride of place, at least temporarily, to the Malcolm X of the motion picture screen. After languishing for over two decades in "development hell," Malcolm X, a $40 million Hollywood biopic, was released amid a torrent of hype, expectation, and skepticism. Director Spike Lee, then and now America's most ambitious and controversial African American filmmaker, billed the film as part labor of love, part declaration of conscience, and every frame his own creation. Though based on the Autobiography and cowritten by screenwriter Arnold Perl, Lee asserted his auteurist primacy over rival interpreters of the life of Malcolm X, whether Perl, Alex Haley, or Malcolm himself. "Malcolm X is my artistic vision," Lee proclaimed, "The film is my interpretation of the man. It is nobody else's" (xiii-xiv).

From the outset, Lee conceived of Malcolm X not just as a memorial to a man who had become a demi-god to many African Americans, but as a [End Page 29] rebuke to the kind of Hollywood condescension that had so embarrassed and enraged Malcolm Little and generations of African American moviegoers. But if Lee's Malcolm X challenged the Hollywood tradition, it also threatened the status of the Autobiography. In the age of the moving image, after all, what is seen on the screen tends to erase what is read on the page. Tellingly, however, the media face-off between the two images of Malcolm X--the literary creation and the motion picture version--indicates that even in an incessantly visual culture, a portrait in literature can outlive a depiction in film.

Published in November 1965, The Autobiography of Malcolm X has been perennially popular, selling millions of copies in paperback in the U.S. alone. At once a political tract, a religious conversion narrative, and an underground commentary on twentieth-century American culture, it has entered the restricted canon of American literary classics. Moreover, the Autobiography is one of the few multicultural additions to undergraduate reading lists that has not inspired the usual carping about lower admissions standards for affirmative action entries. Whether as a work of literary merit or cultural historical insight, its virtues have been self-evident.

Equally self-evident is the role the Autobiography has played in cementing the extraordinary prestige of Malcolm X since his death. Though today Malcolm X is paired in fame and influence with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.--just as Spike Lee paired them in the end credit crawls to his breakthrough film, Do the Right Thing (1989) 1 --he ranked as a subordinate, even fringe character in 1965, known mainly as a specter haunting white America, and hardly more popular within the elite ranks of the black civil rights leadership. His list of accomplishments in legislation is nil, his message as a religious prophet is unheeded, and his one undeniable contribution as a builder of institutions served to benefit the group that engineered his assassination. Malcolm X's legacy...


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