Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992)- A Retrospective

The following essay is a revised, expanded, footnoted, and illustrated combination of two articles I wrote on Malcolm X for Dawn. The first was a commemorative article on Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X; the second was a bibliographic article on material related to Malcolm X.


“The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the colour-line.”1 So wrote the Afro-American activist W. E. B. Du Bois in his famous 1903 work The Souls of Black Folk. And indeed the century of which he spoke was dominated by issues of race, decolonisation, and civil rights- the last especially so in the United States.

One of the most forceful figures of the Civil Rights Movement was Malcolm X, a man who rose from criminality and prison to become one of the most eloquent and captivating orators of the modern era. And one of the greatest tributes to the man is Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X, featuring a performance by Denzel Washington which film director Martin Scorsese lauded as “[…] one of the best in American movies.”2

For Lee, The Autobiography of Malcolm X was the most important book that he had ever read3, and a film about Malcolm was something that he thought that he was born to do4. Subsequently, despite having hitherto made relatively small films, he sought to make Malcolm X comparable in scope to David Lean epics such as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962).5 In this he succeeded: shot on three continents and with a running time of well over three hours, the film ranges from Malcolm’s childhood in the 1920s to his assassination in the 1960s, while commenting on the problems of race in the 1990s.

The opening title sequence at once sets a provocative tone: as Malcolm is heard castigating the white race for its crimes, we see an American flag going up in flames, intercut with real footage from the infamous 1991 videotape of black taxi driver Rodney King being severely beaten by several white police officers. Once the flag has been burned down to the shape of an “X”, the film proper begins with young Malcolm getting his hair straightened so that it “looks white”, moving on to him cheerily bouncing down the street in a flamboyant zoot suit.

But Lee does not allow nostalgia to set in, freezing the frame on the fresh and smiling face of a happy Malcolm as the (slightly altered) opening sentences of the Autobiography take over: “When my mother was pregnant with me, a party of Klansmen on horseback surrounded our house in Omaha, Nebraska. They brandished guns and shouted for my father to come out.” A swinging song segues to a more haunting score as the film depicts the terrorisation of Malcolm’s mother by hooded racists.

These techniques of intercutting and juxtapositioning are used to startling effect elsewhere in the film: a shot of Malcolm carrying his children out of his fire-bombed house is intercut with scenes of Malcolm’s father doing precisely the same thing decades earlier; a shot of a black prostitute on her knees servicing a white customer is overlaid with Malcolm’s declaration that the white man should get on his knees and beg the black man for forgiveness for his crimes.

The evolution of a revolutionary: from criminal (top) to NOI Minister (middle) to advocate of orthodox Islam (bottom).

The film surveys Malcolm’s development as a criminal, eventual incarceration, conversion to the black nationalist ideology of the Nation of Islam (NOI), and rise within the ranks of that organisation. Then Malcolm discovers that NOI leader Elijah Muhammad- whom he venerated- has been impregnating numerous young girls. Shattered by this revelation, and marginalised after his infamous description of the John F. Kennedy assassination as a case of “chickens coming home to roost”, Malcolm eventually leaves the NOI to create his own organisation. He visits Africa and the Middle East, performs the Hajj, and comes to realise that the “Islam” touted by the racist NOI is far removed from the orthodox Islam in which Muslims of multiple races come together. The film climaxes with Malcolm’s assassination at the hands of his former NOI associates, followed by several minutes of footage and photographs of the real Malcolm. A coda features Nelson Mandela quoting Malcolm to a classroom of African children, returning us to the racial issues of the 1990s with which the film began.

While the film is based on the Autobiography, Lee and his crew did extensive research for this film, examining documents and letters by and about Malcolm, interviewing those who knew him, and consulting with Malcolm’s widow Betty Shabazz. But like other biographical or historical films, Malcolm X changes, omits from, and adds to the historical record. Such alterations are understandable, given the difficulty in attempting to portray in just a few hours a life- especially a life containing the varied hues of Malcolm’s. But it is important to note the film’s limitations.

For instance, the film shows a prison inmate urging Malcolm to embrace the NOI, but it was members of Malcolm’s own family who advised him to do so. Malcolm’s siblings only appear in the film as children in flashback sequences- their roles as adults in his life are not shown at all.

The NOI is also treated in a simplified manner. While imprisoned, Malcolm underwent a religious experience and had a vision of W. D. Fard (also known as Wallace Fard Muhammad), the mysterious founder of the NOI. But the film shows Malcolm encountering Elijah Muhammad in his vision, not Fard. More importantly, the film focuses on the political and racial components of Elijah Muhammad’s message while ignoring the more outlandish claims of the NOI leader. For example, in Muhammad’s book Message to the Blackman in America, we can find declarations that the earth separated from the moon in an explosion 60 trillion years ago6, that Native American Indians came to the United States 16,000 years ago after being expelled from India for breaking Islamic laws7, and that Moses, after failing to civilise the white creations of the evil scientist Yakub who were now living in Europe, killed a few hundred of them with dynamite.8

The focus of the film is, of course, on Malcolm, but Malcolm himself was also prone to making questionable assertions, ranging from claims that Jesus spoke Arabic9, to the proclamation that an airplane crash was God’s retribution for the death of a Black Muslim some days earlier.10

In his book Race Matters, the intellectual Cornel West wrote how important it was to “[…] interrogate iconic figures of the past”11, and went on to criticise Malcolm’s silence on oppression in Muslim and Middle Eastern countries. From a different perspective, the pictorial biography Malcolm X: Make it Plain quotes poet Maya Angelou on the dangers of canonising Malcolm: “[…] young people, hearing about him- this larger-than-life person- will be led to think they could never be like him […]”12

Lee’s film might not interrogate Malcolm as much as the latter’s critics would like, but neither is it hagiographic. The material by and about Malcolm is vast, and Lee could not possibly include it all. Lee does deserve respect for humanising Malcolm while simultaneously tackling controversial matter in the face of hostility. During shooting, someone aimed a car at the set with a brick tied to its accelerator (no one was injured).13 And the director was cautioned not to show Malcolm sleeping with a white woman14, and not to show him taking drugs.15 But Lee ignored these warnings; his film spends more than an hour on this period of Malcolm’s life, and also delves into his second conversion to orthodox Islam. As a consequence, it excels at showing the man’s evolution, and paints large the triumphant and tragic themes of Malcolm’s life. While some telling details may be missing from the film, one of the greatest lessons and legacies of Malcolm is given substantial focus: his embodiment of the power of human beings to improve themselves, and to transcend their origins and circumstances.

While Malcolm was not an incurious or illiterate fellow before being sentenced to prison16, there is no doubt that his long and purposeful reading regimen while incarcerated dwarfed in scope anything that he had done before. Reading for up to 15 hours a day, often by a dim beam of light that entered his cell after normal lighting had been turned off17, he studied history, mythology, philosophy, literature, psychology, theology, linguistics, Shintoism, Egyptology, Latin, and much else.18 As fellow inmate Malcolm Jarvis said: “We were trying to acclimate our minds into thinking on a much higher level than that of the average person.”19

“Up to then”, wrote Malcolm in his Autobiography, “I had never been so truly free in my life”.20 Through the dedicated study of books, then, a hustler whose command of simple English was barely functional upon entering prison transformed himself into one of the most articulate and sought-after public speakers in the United States, with an intellect and personality that had the power to charm and inspire the leaders of nations as well as the denizens of slums. One man stopped taking heroin cold turkey after hearing Malcolm speak.21 Another, being given an ultimatum by his wife to choose between Malcolm or her and the NOI, chose the former, with the result that his wife threw all of his clothes out of a window.22 The example of Malcolm has influenced many, from the Black Panthers23 to Native American activist Russell Means and beyond.24 Few men have possessed the unremitting fearlessness of Malcolm to defy accepted notions of race, politics, history, and democracy, and just as his charged rhetoric was capable of terrifying blacks as well as whites, his life has inspired people of different races across the world.

West lamented the present absence of intellectual black men of the calibre of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and W. E. B. Du Bois, contrasting these men, who were known for the sober dress suits which symbolised their seriousness, with their shabbily dressed modern counterparts.25 He went on to say: “For Du Bois, the glorious life of the mind was a highly disciplined way of life and an intensely demanding way of struggle that facilitated transit between his study and the streets; whereas present-day black intellectuals tend to be mere academicians […]”.26

Malcolm exemplified many of the qualities West ascribed to Du Bois, but was also dismissive of the notion that people who attended prominent universities such as Oxford and Harvard must necessarily be intellectuals: “A scholar in my opinion constitutes a guiding light in a revolutionary period and is a bond that unites the abstract and the concrete”.27

It is difficult to think of a film which comes even close to Malcolm X in its unhindered portrayal of the problems of the colour-line. “Cry Freedom and Amistad are not about the black people,” observed Lee. “They end up being about the white people.”28 Indeed, there are no white saviours in Lee’s film, and it would perhaps be more productive to compare Malcolm X to an equally controversial work released a year before: Oliver Stone’s JFK. Both films were over three hours in length, and both used the stylistic devices of archive footage and multiple film stocks to challenge and discuss 20th century America politics and history. In fact, JFK was an influence on Malcolm X, and even some footage from the former appears in the latter.

Lee thought that his film was just as important a production as Stone’s29, but the studio refused to provide him with enough funds to complete the project in the manner that he envisioned. So Lee, influenced by Malcolm’s views on black self-determination, approached wealthy black figures such as Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan in order to acquire the required funding.30 Fortunately, a number of such people readily agreed to help him, and the film was completed as the director intended.

In a 1992 article for the Los Angeles Times, Lee was quoted on the need for young black men to have more diverse role models than athletes and rap artists31. In a book he co-wrote with Ralph Wiley on the making of Malcolm X titled By Any Means Necessary he went further and criticised the fashion amongst many black youths to fail classes, hang out, and get high, because the opposite was seen as “acting white”. Lee blamed this championing of ignorance over intelligence on peer pressure.32 West attributed the mediocrity of black intellectuals to a more easily accessible mass culture, with its concomitant side-effects of conspicuous consumption and hedonistic indulgence.33 This same mass culture is also responsible for the commodification and simplification of Malcolm: the selective way in which his image and words have been interpreted. Malcolm’s pride and anger are easily packaged, marketed, and imitated- but his attributes of self-correction and asceticism are not.

Because Malcolm’s life was, as he himself put it, a “chronology of changes34, and because he was a complex man who died at a time when he was reconfiguring his own philosophy, there has been varied speculation about his future development, much of it contradictory. That he had softened in his attitude towards other Civil Rights leaders and abandoned blanket antagonism towards whites seems clear, but would he have forsaken other prejudices? Since Malcolm was neither afraid of the truth, nor afraid to publicly renounce his own errors, it is not unreasonable to conjecture that he would have revised his views as his knowledge and experience increased.

In this he is somewhat reminiscent of Du Bois. The 1903 edition of The Souls of Black Folk contained negative references to Jews; for the Jubilee Edition published half a century later, Du Bois omitted or modified these remarks, and while he denied any anti-Semitism, was cognisant of the possibility of unconscious bias35. In the new preface for this edition Du Bois also mentioned his earlier underestimation of the links between racism and capitalism.36

In the last year of his life, Malcolm, too, was beginning to broaden his perspectives, reclassifying the racial problem as one of human rights, attempting to form linkages between black Americans and their cousins on the African continent, and- like his father before him- desiring to indict the United States before an international court. To what degree he would have been successful in these efforts is difficult to ascertain, but it is certain that his activities frightened the white power structure.

When Malcolm X was released, the Rodney King riots were just months past, and South African apartheid still in the process of being dismantled, yet the film is as relevant today as it ever was, and has lost none of its salutary power. For racism and injustice are not at an end, neither in the United States nor anywhere else. There are still people in many different countries who, like Malcolm in his youth, think it preferable to be light-complexioned and who, even if unbeknownst to themselves, strive to be white, both physically and culturally. Of course, one could argue that a transracial attitude towards life and culture is a most enlightened outlook, but this ideally comes after a philosophical acknowledgement and acceptance of one’s origins. To study the life of the philosopher and revolutionary Malcolm X is to help one to reach this goal. And one could do worse than begin with Lee’s film, which, despite its flaws, is as inspiring and challenging as its subject. As Lee himself described it: “This is not just some regular bullshit Hollywood movie.”37




It is not an easy matter to know another life. Even in the modern technological era, much of what constitutes the totality of a human being is unvoiced and unrecorded, and what is visible may not be true, or only partly true. Thus there are always gaps and inconsistencies when attempting to assess a life, and into these gaps the historian, the biographer, the journalist, and the propagandist inserts speculation, extrapolation, interpretation, and/or distortion.

Malcolm X was one of the most famous figures of the 20th century, but despite the fact that his own writings and speeches are easily available, and a huge amount of material has been written about him, it is not a simple task to understand the man.

A number of books, articles, and documentaries were consulted for the above essay. Below I detail the editions I used and, where relevant, point out some of the strengths and weaknesses of these materials, including conflicts with other sources.

I have mentioned only a few examples from a literature which is frequently wrought with simplification, exaggeration, error, and delusion – yet most of the materials mentioned below provide important information regarding Malcolm, and should be studied by anyone with an interest in the subject. Few of them are as well-known as Manning Marable’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Viking, 2011), but fame is no guide: at least two different teams of scholars have published numerous essays rebutting Marable’s rendition of history.

To avoid outright books which contain errors or unsubstantiated claims is nigh impossible. Because of Malcolm’s evolution of thought, and because many people have tried to suborn him for their own purposes, those who wish to understand Malcolm must read diligently, survey a wide variety of sources, and impartially evaluate conflicting data. To do so not only enhances one’s understanding of history, but provides insight into the construction of history itself.




Many prominent reviews of Malcolm X did not care to delineate in detail the discrepancies between Lee’s film and the historical record – partly, one suspects, because the writers of such pieces had little knowledge of the subject. In this respect The New York Times demonstrates the most incompetence, leaving one to ponder exactly how their writers do their research – assuming that they research at all.

Vincent Canby’s “’Malcolm X’ as Complex as Its Subject” claims that Elijah Muhammad founded the Nation of Islam 38 (it was founded by W. D. Fard, also known as Wallace Fard Muhammad). Lena Williams’ “Playing With Fire” 39 and Sheila Rule’s “Malcolm X: The Facts, the Fictions, the Film”40 suggest that Malcolm returned from Hajj with the new name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. A similar claim is made in Hisham Aidi’s otherwise insightful 2016 piece for The Nation titled “The Political Uses of Malcolm X’s Image”41. And the book Malcolm X: Make it Plain makes the same claim twice.42

“El-Hajj” is an honorific bestowed on someone who has completed the Hajj; the name “Malik El-Shabazz” had been legally adopted by Malcolm in the late 1950s, as Malcolm himself states in Arnold Perl’s 1972 documentary Malcolm X. Therefore, while it is technically correct to say that the name “El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz” was not used until after the Hajj, the implication in these various sources is that Malcolm changed his name to a more Islamic one as a result of the Hajj, which is incorrect.

A baffling statement can be found in Scott Tobias’ review for The A. V. Club of the film’s 2005 DVD release, which describes the film as “faithful to the letter if not the spirit of its source material”43. However, the complete opposite is true: Lee altered facts to suit his film’s pacing and narrative, but was faithful to the spirit of what Malcolm was about.




A. Books containing material by Malcolm X:


1. Malcolm X (with the assistance of Alex Haley), The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Ballantine Books, 1999). Pp. xxx + 466. ISBN: 0345350685.


There are many different editions of this book. A tenth printing of the first edition (Grove Press, Inc., 1965) that I have analysed contains an introduction by M. S. Handler, 19 chapters of the autobiography proper, an epilogue by Alex Haley, an essay by Ossie Davis, and 32 black and white photographs. Two old Penguin paperback editions I have examined move Haley’s epilogue to the front of the book as a foreword, include an index, but are missing the material by Handler and Davis. A paperback edition published by Ballantine in 1990 (itself a reprint of the original 1973 Ballantine edition, which I have not seen) is textually identical in content to the original Grove Press edition.

The edition I relied upon for this essay was a 1999 Ballantine edition, which retains all of the text from the first Grove Press edition, but also includes a foreword by Malcolm’s daughter Attallah Shabazz. This edition is textually the best edition I have seen, though, like all the other paperback reprints I have mentioned here, does not contain the photographs from the first Grove Press edition. It does, however, feature a unique image: a black and white reproduction on the inside front cover of a stamp of Malcolm X, issued by the U. S. Postal Service in 1999.

Despite being a candid and inspiring account, the Autobiography is factually problematic, as Spike Lee discovered when preparing for his film. In By Any Means Necessary, Lee wrote: “In my research, people – like Malcolm’s brothers and sisters – said they knew the autobiography was not 100 percent accurate, and from my research I’m sure it wasn’t, with assumed names, and some hyperbole here and there” (p.123).


2. Malcolm X, Herb Boyd (ed.), Ilyasah Al-Shabazz (ed.), The Diary of Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) 1964 (Third World Press, 2013). Pp. xxi + 236. ISBN: 9780883783511.


My review of this book can be read here.










3. Malcolm X, Steve Clark (ed.), Malcolm X Talks to Young People – Speeches in the U.S., Britain, and Africa (Pathfinder, 1993). Pp. 110. ISBN: 0873486285. Illustrated; notes; index.


Originally published in 1991, my edition is a third printing from 1993.

The book contains speeches at the University of Ghana (May 13, 1964), Oxford University (December 3, 1964), the London School of Economics (February 11, 1965), in New York (January 1, 1965), and an interview with Young Socialist (January 18, 1965). An appendix contains excerpts from a tributary speech to Malcolm by Jack Barnes (March 5, 1965).








4. Malcolm X, Malcolm X on Afro-American History (Pathfinder Press, Inc., 1970). Pp. 74. Illustrated.


Originally published in 1967, the edition I used is a 1970 second printing of the expanded and illustrated edition. More than half of this volume is taken up by a speech Malcolm gave to a meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity on January 24, 1965. The rest of the book consists of excerpts from the Autobiography and other speeches.









5. Malcolm X, Archie Epps (ed.), Malcolm X: Speeches at Harvard (Paragon House, 1991). Pp. 191. ISBN: 1557784795.


This book was originally published by Morrow in 1968 as The Speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard, and also by Peter Owen in 1969 as Malcolm X and the American Negro Revolution – The Speeches of Malcolm X. The edition I used has a new preface not found in these earlier editions.

The book contains transcripts of three speeches by Malcolm: at the Harvard Law School Forum on March 24, 1961, and on December 16, 1964, and at the Leverett House Forum on March 18, 1964. Unfortunately, Epps saw fit to unnecessarily rearrange paragraphs of some of the speeches and omit segments from a question and answer session. His 100-page introductory essay has problems of its own. Firstly, Epps seems unduly antagonistic towards Malcolm, claiming that Malcolm was “befuddled” (p.39), lacked “clarity of vision and moral courage” (p.39), and was “inwardly starved” (p.97) in his final days. These descriptions do not take into account the transitional period of Malcolm’s last year, and fail to recognise the bravery with which Malcolm continued on his quest to understand and evolve despite a hostile media and constant death threats.

Secondly, Epps makes insupportable extrapolations in order to present his own doubtful theories. The Autobiography briefly describes how Malcolm’s father Earl Little’s final communication with his family was a wave back towards his wife as he walked towards town. Epps writes: “To Louise Little this gesture was a final tender moment shared with her husband. To Malcolm it meant his father went to his death with the courage of a man […] this gesture contained an ironic mixture of bravado and independence” (p.18). How does Epps know this? He later speculates on the nature of jokes that were exchanged at Little family gatherings, but provides no supporting evidence. There are also some irrelevant digressions discussing Samuel Beckett.


6. John Henrik Clarke (ed.), Malcolm X – The Man and His Times (Collier Books, 1969). Pp. xxiv + 360.


This volume contains a significant amount of primary source material. About one-third of the book consists of material by Malcolm himself: articles, speeches, transcripts, etc. Some of these are excerpts, but many are complete. Most of the rest of the book contains essays and reminiscences about Malcolm by people who knew him: John Henrik Clarke, C. Eric Lincoln, Reverend Albert Cleage, Charles E. Wilson, W. Keorapetse Kgositsile, James Boggs, Patricia Robinson, Wyatt Tee Walker, Abdelwahab M. Elmessiri, Earl Grant, Art Sears, Jr., Mburumba Kerina, Gordon Parks, Shirley Graham Dubois, Ossie Davis, Betty Shabazz, Leslie Alexander Lacy, Lebert Bethune, Kenneth B. Clark, and Ruby M. and E. U. Essien-Udom. An appendix contains “Organization of Afro-American Unity: A Statement of Basic Aims and Objectives”, “Outline for Petition to the United Nations Charging Genocide Against 22 Million Black Americans”, and a bibliography.

This book illumines the differences of opinion revolving around Malcolm’s apparent philosophical change in the last year of his life. For example, Reverend Albert Cleage’s essay “Myths About Malcolm” denies that Malcolm wanted to internationalise the struggle for black rights, and denies that Malcolm’s Hajj was a transformative experience which altered his views on whites. This flies in the face of other essays in the volume and books such as George Breitman’s The Last Year of Malcolm X – The Evolution of a Revolutionary (Schocken Books, 1968), not to mention statements by Malcolm himself.


B. Books about Malcolm X:


7. Spike Lee (with Ralph Wiley), By Any Means Necessary – The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X… (Hyperion, 1992). Pp. xvii + 314. ISBN: 1562829130.


About half of this book contains reminiscence on the making of the film by Spike Lee and others involved in the film’s production: Monty W. Ross (co-producer), Jon Kilik (line producer), Wynn Thomas (production designer), Ruth Carter (costume designer), Ernest Dickerson (cinematographer), Preston Holmes (co-producer), Denzel Washingotn (actor), Barry Alexander Brown (editor), Terence Blanchard (composer), and Ntshavheni Wa Luruli (production assistant). This is followed by some black and white stills from the film and set, after which comes the film’s script and a reproduction of Ossie Davis’ eulogy at Malcolm’s funeral. Some of the material about the film’s production overlaps with the Special Edition DVD, but there is much other interesting material here, notably Lee’s interview with NOI leader Louis Farrakhan. Lee also goes into depth about the problems he encountered with getting the film made, ranging from lobbying to be the film’s director, to dealing with protests by black public figures sceptical of his intentions, to financial problems.

An example of Lee’s approach to the historical record can be found on page 98, where he expresses incredulity at Malcolm’s widow Betty Shabazz’s claim that she and her husband never fought. Lee thus inserted into his film a scene of them doing just that. He also states here that his intention was to “approximate the truth”. The end credits do state that “dialogue and certain events and characters contained in the film were created for the purpose of dramatization”, which is more honest than the ostensibly non-fictional books and articles on Malcolm which carry no such disclaimer.


8. William Strickland, Cheryll Y. Greene (ed.), Malcolm X: Make It Plain (Penguin Books, 1995). Pp. viii + 245. ISBN: 0140177132. Illustrated; notes; bibliography.


This book was first published by Viking Penguin in 1994, and accompanies a documentary with the same title. There is some overlap in content between the book and the documentary, but each also contains unique material. The book contains a huge number of photographs, many of them likely rare, accompanied by revealing quotations from various people who knew Malcolm.

Like the articles mentioned above, this book also misleadingly claims that Malcolm returned from the Hajj with a new name (pp. 155, 182).






9. Michael Friedly, Malcolm X – The Assassination (Ballantine Books, 1995). Pp. vi + 294. ISBN: 0345400100. Illustrated; notes; bibliography; index.


This book downplays the involvement in Malcolm’s assassination of government organisations such as the NYPD, the FBI, and the CIA. While the case for government conspiracy may be overwrought, Friedly does go too far when making his own arguments. For instance, the author provides some logical reasons as to why Malcolm’s hospitalisation in Cairo in 1964 was due to accidental food poisoning, and not an attempt on his life, but then goes on to state: “It is also likely that if the CIA, with its extensive resources and experience with assassinations, had wanted Malcolm X dead, he would have been” (p. 71). This statement puts far too much faith in the CIA’s abilities, whose repeated failure to assassinate Fidel Castro is well known. Friedly also attempts to undermine the government conspiracy theory by minimising Malcolm’s impact abroad, and by dismissing the notion that he was considered a threat by the power structure.

The author also dabbles in speculation. While admitting that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm were breaking down the barriers between them, he claims that “the obstacles were too great to overcome”. Friedly has no way of knowing what would have happened had King and Malcolm not been assassinated before they had time to work with each other. He is right to criticise the unnecessary romanticisation of the Civil Rights struggle, but his own conclusions are equally unjustifiable.

Still, the book is a relatively sober account, though one should also read in tandem the essay on Malcolm’s assassination found in The Assassinations (see below), which contradicts some of Friedly’s statements.

An appendix contains a transcription of an affidavit filed by Talmadge Hayer, one of Malcolm’s assassins.


10. Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., Malcolm and the Cross – The Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, and Christianity (New York University Press, 1998). Pp. xv + 269. ISBN: 0814718604. Notes; index.


This is a scholarly book which provides useful information on the early days of the NOI and discusses aspects of Malcolm that the other books I have surveyed do not delve into (a comparison between Malcolm X and Billy Graham, for example). There are some flaws, however. Pages 151-152 try to imagine what Malcolm was thinking during one of his speeches, predictably linking his oratorical style to his father Earl Little. Comparing Malcolm to his father seems to be a recurring theme in biographical material about Malcolm. But while Spike Lee used juxtapositioning techniques to merely comment on some parallel aspects of their lives, books such this occasionally divert from the facts and begin to engage in unwarranted psychobabble.

The appendix contains some primary source material: an open letter to Elijah Muhammad from Malcolm X dated June 23, 1964, and a partial transcript of a sermon by Malcolm at Elder Solomon Lightfoot Michaux’s New York Church of God, June 16, 1961.


11. James DiEugenio and Lisa Pease (eds.), The Assassinations – Probe Magazine on JFK, MLK, RFK and Malcolm X (Feral House, 2003). Pp. xxv + 677. ISBN: 0922915822. Notes; index.


There are only two pieces on Malcolm X in this volume: an article of some 50 pages by James W. Douglass, and the confession of Talmadge Hayer, the latter being a reprint of the affidavit that appeared in Michael Friedly’s The Assassinations (see above). The article by Douglass is useful in that it provides a corrective to Friedly’s perspective on the assassination.









C. Other books of relevance:


12. Elijah Muhammad, Message to the Blackman in America (MUHAMMAD’S Temple No. 2, 1965). Pp. xxvii + 355.


A convoluted and repetitive book in need of a team of editors. The book is useful in understanding the ideology of the Nation of Islam, but it abounds with counter-factual statements, and even these are not consistent with each other. Page 31 describes how a great explosion split the moon from the earth 60 trillion years ago, but page 110 gives a figure of “over 66 trillion years”. The foreword by one Daniel Burley tries to put Elijah Muhammad in the ranks of such men as Socrates, Aristotle, the Buddha, Guru Nanak, Confucius, Zoroaster, Moses, Mohammed, and Jesus.








13. W. E. B. Du Bois, Brent Hayes Edwards (ed.), The Souls of Black Folk (Oxford University Press, 2007). Pp. xxxvi + 223. ISBN: 978019280678. Chronology; notes; bibliography.


This volume in the Oxford World’s Classics series reproduces the first edition of 1903; the introduction lists the textual changes made by Du Bois for the edition of 1953. This edition also includes appendices featuring extracts from other works by Du Bois.

It is interesting to read this book while keeping men such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X in mind, for Du Bois foreshadowed much that was to come later. In his book we can find predictive passages such as this: “And as the black third of the land grows in thrift and skill, unless skillfully guided in its larger philosophy, it must more and more brood over the red past and the creeping, crooked present, until it grasps a gospel of revolt and revenge and throws its new-found energies athwart the current of advance.”

It is worth noting that Du Bois, initially an integrationist (akin to King), shifted to a position of self-separation (akin to Malcolm). Du Bois also edited and introduced a collection of essays attacking American racism which was presented to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Years later, King and Malcolm would also seek to bring the American race problem before the United Nations.




14. Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992) DVD; Warner Video, 2005.


This 2-disc Special Edition contains a number of informative special features:

• Commentary track featuring Spike Lee (director), Ernest Dickerson (director of photography), Barry Alexander Brown (editor), and Ruth Carter (costume designer).

• Deleted Scenes with introductions by Lee (21 minutes).

• Malcolm X, a 1972 documentary directed by Arnold Perl (92 minutes).

• “By Any Means Necessary: The Making of Malcolm X” documentary (30 minutes).

• Theatrical Trailer (3 minutes).






  1. W. E. B. Du Bois, Brent Hayes Edwards (ed.), The Souls of Black Folk (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 3.
  2. “By Any Means Necessary: The Making of Malcolm X” (documentary), in Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992) DVD; Warner Video, 2005.
  3. Commentary track, in Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992) DVD; Warner Video, 2005.
  4. Spike Lee (with Ralph Wiley), By Any Means Necessary – The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X… (Hyperion, 1992), p. 2.
  5. “By Any Means Necessary: The Making of Malcolm X” (documentary), in Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992) DVD; Warner Video, 2005. The commentary track for this DVD also cites The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) as an influence.
  6. Elijah Muhammad, Message to the Blackman in America (MUHAMMAD’S Temple No. 2, 1965), p. 31.
  7. Ibid., p. 107.
  8. Ibid., p. 120.
  9. Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., Malcolm and the Cross – The Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, and Christianity (New York University Press, 1998), p. 149, 228.
  10. Michael Friedly, Malcolm X – The Assassination (Ballantine Books, 1995), p. 22, citing Hakim Abdullah Jamal, From the Dead Level (Random House, 1972), p. 201.
  11. Cornel West, Race Matters (Vintage Books, 1994), p. 70.
  12. William Strickland, Cheryll Y. Greene (ed.), Malcolm X: Make It Plain (Penguin Books, 1995), p. 227.
  13. Spike Lee (with Ralph Wiley), By Any Means Necessary – The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X… (Hyperion, 1992), p. 95.
  14. Ibid., p. 68.
  15. Ibid., p. 38.
  16. Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., Malcolm and the Cross – The Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, and Christianity (New York University Press, 1998), p. 83.
  17. Malcolm X (with the assistance of Alex Haley), The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Ballantine Books, 1999), p. 183, 177.
  18. Ibid., p. 158, 178-179, 182, 188-189. Throughout the Autobiography Malcolm mentions numerous books and authors he has studied. The page references provided here are a representative sample. Also see William Strickland, Cheryll Y. Greene (ed.), Malcolm X: Make It Plain (Penguin Books, 1995), p. 63.
  19. William Strickland, Cheryll Y. Greene (ed.), Malcolm X: Make It Plain (Penguin Books, 1995), p. 63.
  20. Malcolm X (with the assistance of Alex Haley), The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Ballantine Books, 1999), p. 176.
  21. William Strickland, Cheryll Y. Greene (ed.), Malcolm X: Make It Plain (Penguin Books, 1995), p. 118.
  22. Ibid., p. 171.
  23. Huey P. Newton (with the assistance of J. Herman Blake), Revolutionary Suicide (Wildwood House, 1974), p. 113. Co-founder of the Black Panther Party Bobby Seale has a cameo appearance in Malcolm X.
  24. Russell Means (with Marvin J. Wolf), Where White Men Fear to Tread – The Autobiography of Russell Means (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996), p. 417, 521.
  25. Cornel West, Race Matters (Vintage Books, 1994), p. 57, 61.
  26. Ibid., p. 61-62.
  27. Mburumba Kerina, “Malcolm X: The Apostle of Defiance – An African View”, in John Henrik Clarke (ed.), Malcolm X – The Man and His Times (Collier Books, 1969), p. 117.
  28. “By Any Means Necessary: The Making of Malcolm X” (documentary), in Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992) DVD; Warner Video, 2005.
  29. Spike Lee (with Ralph Wiley), By Any Means Necessary – The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X… (Hyperion, 1992), p. 30.
  30. Ibid., p. 165.
  31. Robert W. Welkos, “Spike Lee Speaks Out on ‘Malcolm X’”, Los Angeles Times, 26 February 1992: http://articles.latimes.com/1992-02-26/entertainment/ca-2741_1_spike-lee
  32. Spike Lee (with Ralph Wiley), By Any Means Necessary – The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X… (Hyperion, 1992), p. 14-15.
  33. Cornel West, Race Matters (Vintage Books, 1994), p. 55.
  34. Malcolm X (with the assistance of Alex Haley), The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Ballantine Books, 1999), p. 346.
  35. W. E. B. Du Bois, Brent Hayes Edwards (ed.), The Souls of Black Folk (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. xxvi.
  36. Ibid., p. 208.
  37. Spike Lee (with Ralph Wiley), By Any Means Necessary – The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X… (Hyperion, 1992), p. 68.
  38. Vincent Canby, “‘Malcolm X’ as Complex as its Subject”, The New York Times, November 18, 1992: http://www.nytimes.com/1992/11/18/movies/review-film-malcolm-x-as-complex-as-its-subject.html
  39. Lena Williams, “Playing With Fire”, The New York Times, October 25, 1992: http://www.nytimes.com/1992/10/25/magazine/playing-with-fire.html
  40. Sheila Rule, “Malcolm X: The Facts, the Fictions, the Film”, The New York Times, November 15, 1992: https://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0CE4DF173BF936A25752C1A964958260&pagewanted=2
  41. Hisham Aidi, “The Political Uses of Malcolm X’s Image”, The Nation, July 12, 2016: https://www.thenation.com/article/the-political-uses-of-malcolm-x-image/
  42. William Strickland, Cheryll Y. Greene (ed.), Malcolm X: Make It Plain (Penguin Books, 1995), p. 155, 182
  43. Scott Tobias, “Malcolm X”, The A. V. Club, February 15, 2005: https://film.avclub.com/malcolm-x-1798200411