Malcolm through the eyes of many

Issue 

Malcolm X: Make it plain
Three-part documentary, screening February 23, March 2 and March 9 at 8.30pm (8 South Australia) on SBS
Reviewed by Chris Martin

This new documentary is a fascinating and comprehensive look at the life of Malcolm X through the eyes of the people who knew him, his family, friends and fellow activists.

"Make it plain", we learn, was a phrase used by Malcolm in his last days, referring to the sort of introduction he would ask for when addressing an audience: plain and simple in contrast to the hype and ostentation of his days with the Nation of Islam and "the honourable Elijah Muhammad".

This small but revealing insight is one of many that emerge as a great range of Malcolm's contemporaries relate their memories of the man and his work.

The film makers have managed to track down and interview a fascinating variety of people. We hear from family members and friends such as Malcolm "Shorty" Jarvis (Malcolm's partner in his criminal period) as well as prominent black figures such as Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez, Ossie Davis and Alex Haley (Malcolm's biographer) and even a member of the Saudi royal family who knew Malcolm from his pilgrimage to Mecca.

We also hear from a surprising number of Malcolm's enemies such as Yusuf Shah, a Nation of Islam member rumoured to have bombed the Shabazz family home and Gene Roberts, a confessed police plant who tailed Malcolm from the Nation to the later groups that Malcolm founded.

Together with a solid selection of archival footage and concise, informed commentary, the interviews build a clear and vivid picture of this complex and influential figure.

Even for most of those familiar with Malcolm's life, his family's persecution by the KKK, his descent from brilliant student to hustler and criminal, his rise to dynamic orator and activist, to international symbol of black nationalism, there is much in the exhaustive study that will be new.

Key aspects of Malcolm's political development are analysed closely, particularly the effect of police attacks on Nation members and civil rights activists. His developing internationalism and understanding of the nature of imperialism are also highlighted.

This serves to make it a timely production given the success of Spike Lee's flamboyant biography, which did much to popularise Malcolm's contribution but gave a limited account of his political direction.

It also comes after the recent arrest of Malcolm's daughter on charges of hiring a hit man to murder Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam minister believed by many, including Betty Shabazz, to have arranged Malcolm's assassination. The case, now before the US courts, promises to revive speculation on the involvement of the FBI and CIA in Malcolm's death as well as the likelihood of a frame-up in the current charges.

The documentary makes a great contribution to our understanding of this important and fascinating individual.

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