COVER STORY : Malcolm X, the Movie--Why Now? : Nearly 28 years after his death, the African-American leader has ignited a new generation--A look at his life and our times.

<i> Terry Pristin is a Times staff writer</i>

He was a spellbinding orator who articulated black rage and inspired black pride with unprecedented vividness, forthrightness and clarity. He had a remarkable force of will, an astonishing capacity for growth and a voracious appetite for knowledge that led him while in prison to study the dictionary word by word. Although he often expressed contempt for “the chicken-pecking Uncle Toms” in the civil rights movement, the fear he instilled in white people may have accelerated passage of landmark civil rights legislation.

Nearly 28 years after Malcolm X was gunned down in an upper Manhattan ballroom in front of his wife and young daughters, he is a venerated figure in the black community, especially among young people. To many he is a hero of almost mythical proportions and is far more admired or revered than Martin Luther King Jr., a black leader more palatable to whites.

Having sprouted well before the Spike Lee-directed film “Malcolm X” went into production, Malcolmania now seems ubiquitous--from the T-shirts and baseball caps emblazoned with the “X” symbol, to clothing and posters bearing his likeness to the black metal-framed eyeglasses modeled after the ones that became his trademark.

Despite the brevity of his life--Malcolm, like King, was killed at 39--his legacy is complex and sometimes contradictory, enabling his followers to pick and choose the parts with most meaning to them. “It’s like the Bible,” said James Cone, author of “Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare.” “I don’t care what you want to do, there’s something in the Bible that will help you do that.”


Although he left behind an autobiography and many who knew him well are still alive, much about Malcolm X remains elusive and open to conjecture or individual interpretation. The movie, starring Denzel Washington, is likely to intensify the debate over Malcolm’s life and legacy rather than quiet it.

For many, Malcolm’s appeal lies in his aggressively militant rhetoric, his unsparing condemnation of “white devils” and his rejection of the palliative of integration. Others are captivated by his own personal odyssey, as recounted both in his autobiography, and in the film. Opening Wednesday, the movie traces his evolution from a young cocaine-snorting, womanizing hustler and criminal into an ascetic self-taught minister in the black separatist Nation of Islam movement, and shows how his eventual rupture with the organization led to his murder.

Others find inspiration in Malcolm’s exhortation to poor and uneducated blacks to stop reinforcing their sense of inferiority through drugs, alcohol, gambling and crime.

“That was Malcolm’s genius,” said Charles Silberman, author of “The Crisis in Black and White,” a book that Malcolm particularly admired. “He saw that the first step was to articulate the rage and the second was to use that rage to mobilize blacks to take control of their own lives.”

Still others are impressed that a man who had reportedly singled out Jews as the worst of the white devils and once rejoiced over an airplane crash because white people had perished, was able, at the end, to stop preaching hate.

The film is largely based on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” as told to the late Alex Haley, and on independent research by producer Marvin Worth, who has owned the rights to the book since 1967 and made a documentary about Malcolm’s life in 1972.

Worth and Malcolm’s family acknowledge that not every word of the autobiography, published shortly after Malcolm’s assassination, is gospel. Some figures, including Malcolm’s friend Shorty, portrayed by Lee in the movie, are composites of several people. (The film adds other composites, most notably Baines, played by Albert Hall, the prison inmate who introduces Malcolm to Islam and later turns against him.) Errors may have crept in because Malcolm died before the book was completed. For instance, Haley misstates the name of Malcolm’s eldest daughter, Attallah, erroneously asserting that she was named after Attilah the Hun. (According to Attallah Shabazz, her name means “gift of god” in Arabic.)

More serious flaws were revealed last year after publication of a highly controversial biography by political scientist Bruce Perry, who casts doubt on Malcolm’s account of many seminal events in his life. Perry also suggests that Malcolm may have embellished and glamorized his criminal past in order to make his transformation seem even more dramatic than it actually was. (The movie, however, depicts him as inept at crime.)

Equally controversial is the question of just what Malcolm X believed in the last months of his life. He had broken with the Nation of Islam, after incurring the wrath of members who accused him of trying to discredit and overshadow their leader, Elijah Muhammad. He had made a trip to Mecca, where he found himself treated with kindness by Muslims with white complexions. Worth and others are convinced he had become a “humanist” who was drawing closer in spirit to King’s racially inclusive beliefs. But some people, noting his failure to renounce violence or stop making anti-Semitic remarks, are not quite so sure just where he was headed.

This uncertainty “created an ideal situation for people who admired Malcolm X or did not admire him to make of him what they wanted him to be,” said Duke University Prof. C. Eric Lincoln, a friend of Malcolm and the author of “The Black Muslims in America.” “They have had a field day.”

And finally, there are continued questions about just who was responsible for his death, and persistent, if unproved, allegations, as with all political assassinations, of CIA or FBI involvement.

Perry’s exhaustively researched biography, “Malcolm X: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America,” based on interviews with 420 people, was completed in 1983 but not published until eight years later--and then only by Station Hill Press, a small house in New York. Perry said other publishers were scared off by some of his more sensational findings, such as his allegation that Malcolm in his youth sometimes made a living as a male hustler. In later life, Malcolm never alluded to these experiences, Perry theorizes, so as to protect his carefully cultivated masculine image.

Perry, who has taught at the University of Texas and the University of Pennsylvania, also challenged Malcolm’s account of the 1929 fire that destroyed his childhood home in Lansing, Mich. Although Malcolm, who was 4 at the time, recalls his father, Earl Little, shouting and shooting at “the two white men who had set the fire,” Perry found evidence that Little himself burned down his home after his family was unjustly evicted on racial grounds. Malcolm’s mother and her sister-in-law told Perry that an earlier fire Malcolm blamed on the Ku Klux Klan (also depicted in the film) never occurred.

Perry also finds “striking” parallels between the Lansing fire and the one that ravaged Malcolm’s Queens, N.Y., home shortly before his death. Malcolm said that firebombing was the work of members of the Nation of Islam, which owned the house and had obtained an eviction order against him. But Perry suggests that the son may have repeated his father’s deed. (Perry’s critics point out, however, that this scenario requires one to believe that Malcolm would have risked the lives of his daughters, who were asleep in the house when the fire erupted.)

Convinced that Perry was bent on demolishing Malcolm’s reputation, his widow, Betty, and daughters declined to cooperate with him. Attallah Shabazz, in a telephone interview, characterized the book as “slanderous”; Worth, who has not read it, called the findings “utter nonsense.”

Although his book was praised in The Times and other publications, Perry has been criticized for relying heavily on psychological explanations of Malcolm’s character and conduct. Writing in the Washington Post, Robert G. O’Meally, professor of English and American studies at Barnard College in New York, accused Perry of indulging in “psycho-babble” and overly simplistic analysis. At the same time, O’Meally said there is a need to revise the “received, romanticized wisdom concerning this leader.”

Whatever the discrepancies in his life story, there is no question that Malcolm’s views were constantly evolving. “Despite my firm convictions, I have been always a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it,” he said in his autobiography.

But just where he stood toward the end of his life, after he had broken with the Nation of Islam and was no longer a “mouthpiece,” as his daughter Attallah puts it, for Elijah Muhammad, was unclear, perhaps even to him. “I’m man enough to tell you that I can’t put my finger on exactly what my philosophy is now, but I’m flexible,” Haley quoted him as telling an interviewer.

Cone, a professor of contemporary theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, believes, like producer Worth, that Malcolm ended up as “a humanist.” Malcolm, in the autobiography, attributes his changed attitude toward white people to his 1964 trip to the Arab world. However, both Cone and Perry say his attitudes softened five years earlier, when he traveled to Saudi Arabia for the first time, but were not acknowledged out of loyalty to Elijah Muhammad. According to Cone, Malcolm and King “were moving closer together” and had an appointment to meet just two days after Malcolm was killed.

But others are more skeptical about the depth of this conversion. “It is easy to make a bit too much of this development in Malcolm: It was, at most, only the beginning of a transmutation,” Marshall Frady recently wrote in The New Yorker.

Lincoln suggests that too much may have been made out of the rift between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad, even in the autobiography. “I read Alex’s manuscript from beginning to end before it was published, and the published (final) chapters are quite different from what I read,” said Lincoln, who did not elaborate on why Haley would have altered the narration. “I am trying to tell you that everything that has been written about Malcolm X is not kosher.”

While Malcolm did announce he was no longer a racist, he was not willing to embrace integration and did not adopt King’s philosophy of non-violence. Both the film and Worth’s documentary end with Malcolm’s warning that blacks would accomplish their goals “by any means necessary.”

What did he mean by that?

“I don’t think he meant picking up a gun and going out and shooting people,” Worth said.

“I really think he meant things like, economically, do whatever you have to do, but he didn’t mean armed revolution. It’s not spelled out. I don’t want to be presumptuous, and interpret for him, but I would think he probably wouldn’t mind you taking it any way you wanted to take it, because, as they say, you get things through fear and respect.”

This bravado illustrates one of the many contradictions in Malcolm. He had a menacing air, he talked tough and he recommended that blacks arm themselves; yet he himself did not carry a gun and he never engaged in violence. Indeed, on several occasions, he intervened to prevent angry crowds from rioting, according to Perry.

Although he scoffed at civil rights legislation, saying it would not help blacks, the ever-present threat he represented may have helped make it law. “By frightening whites and by making many of them feel that Martin Luther King’s approach was a blessing in disguise, Malcolm helped create the political climate that spurred the passage of the civil rights bills of 1964 and 1965,” Perry writes.

Despite his scorn for “white devils,” he befriended many white people. “He was a man of great charm and courtesy. He was a rather courtly gentleman of the old school,” Silberman said. Writer Nat Hentoff, another friend, remembers Malcolm’s “very sharp sense of humor” and playful manner.

He made conflicting statements about Jews, condemning them for “siphoning out” resources from black ghettos while expressing understanding and sympathy over the prejudice they too had suffered. “The interesting fact is that in the last year of his life, he seemed to renounce a good deal of the anti-Semitism and bigotry of his ideology before that,” said David Lehrer, Western States Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League.

By then, however, time was running out for Malcolm X. Animosity toward him had worsened as a result of his efforts to discredit Elijah Muhammad, viewed by the faithful as God’s own messenger. He knew he had become a target.

But who exactly killed him? One suspect, Mujahid Halim (known then as Talmadge Hayer), was captured red-handed and went to prison along with two other members of the Nation of Islam. Halim later said that those two were wrongly convicted and pointed the finger at four other Muslims. But no new charges were filed.

Many of Malcolm’s admirers blame the CIA, the FBI and/or the New York police for Malcolm’s murder. “People believe overwhelmingly that he was killed (by the FBI)--that if you spoke out, that was going to be your fate,” said Johnnie L. Cochran, a prominent black Los Angeles attorney.

While no evidence has been found of their complicity in the murder, it is clear that law enforcement agencies considered Malcolm dangerous, and there is plenty of documentary proof that the CIA watched him while he traveled abroad, and FBI agents and New York police kept him under surveillance at home. Prof. Cone and others believe the FBI infiltrated the Nation of Islam and “helped create tension” between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad, knowing where this might lead.

"(Then-FBI director) J. Edgar Hoover’s hostility to the civil rights movement is well-known now,” said James Turner, a political sociologist at Cornell University.

Was Elijah Muhammad indirectly responsible for Malcolm’s murder, or did his followers act without his knowledge? Hentoff is haunted by a conversation he had with Malcolm two weeks before the slaying. “We were kidding around, and then he got very somber. It was the first time I’d ever seen him really apprehensive . . . As he was leaving he said, ‘Whatever happens to me, it won’t be Elijah.’ . . . The whole thing is very murky.”

While some people remain troubled by the question marks surrounding Malcolm’s death, others are more concerned about how his legacy is being received. Shelby Steele, professor of English at San Jose State University, said young African-Americans are drawn to Malcolm because of “the rage, the clarity, the rebellion, the flaunting of authority” but “skirt around” his insistence that they can change their lives only by altering their behavior.

“Today he would have been called a neo-conservative. His demands were unrelenting,” Steele said. Noting that few have followed Malcolm into Islam or adopted his ascetic practices, he added: “Who wants to make those kinds of personal sacrifices? There are a lot of easy riders where Malcolm is concerned.”