Loading...
Saturday, 07 March 2020 22:36

Who Killed Malcolm X? (Review)

Written by

Joe Green reviews the documentary, Who Killed Malcom X? by Ark Media, exposing the omissions that sacrifice clarity and context by treating the assassination like an ordinary murder, chasing individual suspects and missing the underlying political structures.


On February 9, 1965, less than two weeks before he was murdered, Malcolm X was prevented from entering France. Police met him at the airport and denied him entrance into the country, forcing him to fly back to England where he had been speaking.

This was not because the French government was afraid of Malcolm X.

It was because Charles De Gaulle, the French President, was worried that the CIA would kill Malcolm while he was in the country and France would get the blame. As reported by Jim Douglass in his excellent essay, “The Murder and Martydom of Malcolm X,” the reasoning was revealed by a North African diplomat to journalist Eric Norden a couple of months later. “Your CIA is beginning to murder its own citizens now,” the diplomat said.[1]

That story, and a great many other things, have been left out of streaming giant Netflix’s new six-part documentary Who Killed Malcolm X? In theory, this should be the kind of thing we should cheer about: For an estimated cost of $1.2 million, featuring a terrific theme song and fine craftsmanship behind the camera, the documentary has made such a splash that there is talk it may actually reopen the case. Great, right? Let’s light up cigars. Especially since, unlike the “other” major assassinations of the 1960s—JFK, MLK, and RFK—there is a substantial lack of mainstream interest. Most people, if they know anything at all about the man, assume that he was a violent man reaching a violent end, no more worthy of interest than intra-gang or mob warfare. (I have found this to be true even among political researchers, who also often demonstrate no interest in the COINTELPRO war against the Black Panthers.) If Who Killed Malcolm X? can get a more mainstream audience to pay attention to Malcolm’s story, this is terrific news.

Unfortunately, this series falls short in most other aspects.

So the first thing that seemed strange is that it lacks any major scholars who have dealt with Malcolm X in a comprehensive way. If somebody gave me money to make a documentary on Malcolm X, the first thing I’d want to do is make sure we get Karl Evanzz. And Baba Zak Kondo. And Dr. Jared Ball. And the aforementioned Jim Douglass. For starters. This series only features Zak Kondo. Now the filmmakers do get a number of folks—eyewitnesses and people on the ground—who are fascinating in the stories they have to tell, but the documentary doesn’t have any input from anyone who could put these stories into a bigger picture. Which is because, for whatever reason, the directors Phil Bertelsen and Rachel Dretzin choose to frame everything around the investigation of one man: Abdur-Rahman Muhammad.

Abdur-Rahman Muhammad tells us right out that he is just a regular guy, an average person who took an interest in the case and studied it for thirty years. The case never sat right with him and he was determined to get at the truth. So this series makes out Muhammad to be their Jim Garrison. Which is a fair enough approach, all things considered. And one thing he is good at is getting people to go on-camera. His status as someone from the neighborhood, as well as his Muslim faith, gives him an edge to anyone else trying to do the man-on-the-street investigation he tries to do. However, what Muhammad does throughout the series, over and over through six parts, is continually tease the uncovering of the TRUTH, just around the next corner. This leads one to believe that the sixth part in this series will be a humdinger, the thing that will develop all the various themes into a strong finish. It doesn’t, but it will take a little explanation to understand why.

For the first episode I was willing to go along with the ride. It seemed like it was at least citing some of the major aspects of the case. However, somewhere through the course of the second episode, it began to dawn on me that this was going nowhere. Part of this is a question of emphasis, but unfortunately there is a large element of omission.

MALCOLM X IN HISTORY

The story of Malcolm X and his assassination requires some knowledge of his background and the background of black civil rights. To begin at the beginning, Malcolm Little was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925. His father was murdered by white supremacists—the Klu Klux Klan. His father, a preacher, had been a supporter of Marcus Garvey. This is an important point, because the Garveyites were separationists. Garvey created the ‘Black Star Line,’ which was supposed to transport black people back to Africa. Garvey had given up on assimilation; in his eyes, only a return to the Homeland could make African Americans come back into their own dignity, as equals with one another. For a variety of reasons, the Black Star Line never worked—one of the principal ones being that the ships were often barely usable, and Garvey eventually lost his grip on reality.[2] It is ultimately a tragic story.

It’s also an incredibly important story, not the least of which because it underlines the two main approaches that would be taken over the course of the century—one line essentially assimilationist and another separationist. On the assimilationist side was Garvey’s rival W. E. B. DuBois, the first black man to graduate from Harvard with a doctorate. DuBois proffered a theory of the “talented tenth,” the idea that black political equality and civil rights would be gained through the achievements of the best and brightest among the people. It was the sort of theory one might expect from a man with a Harvard doctorate and one unlikely to ever win mass popular support. (DuBois was a strong proponent of the “great man” theory of history, writing short profiles of men he felt were especially important. This included Abraham Lincoln and Joseph Stalin.)

On the separationist side, Garvey founded the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), an organization which—following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917—grew large enough to attract the attention of a 22-year-old J. Edgar Hoover. Under President Woodrow Wilson, at the direction of John Lord O’Brian, Hoover went to work for the Alien Enemy Bureau. As would become a repeated pattern through the years, government agents were sent to infiltrate UNIA and retrieve intelligence. By 1919, Hoover himself grew to be the head of the General Intelligence Division of the Bureau of Investigation.[3] The next year he joined the Federal Lodge No. 1 in Washington, D.C. and by 1924 he was director—at the age of 29. That is to say, Hoover’s personal history mirrors the rise of black civil rights movements of the 20th century and his first connection with it was conflated with Communism and anti-Americanism.

Returning to Malcolm, he would wind up in prison in 1946. As related in his classic autobiography, as “told to” Alex Haley, he met a man called John Bembry in prison who converted him to the Nation of Islam (NOI). He became an American Muslim. This is not the same thing as mainstream Muslim faith, but a peculiar strain of Islam with somewhat tenuous connections to other strains.

Malcolm Little became Malcolm X, disposing of his “slave name.” The NOI, led by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, dictated that adherents get rid of their surnames since they had nothing to do with their origins but rather served as a kind of American costume. It was no accident that so many American founder names grew to become stereotypically “black” names—Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, and the like. It is natural to bestow a name of distinction on oneself, lacking other options; however, in the case of black Americans, this state of affairs did not emerge from an adoption but from a kidnapping.

THE DOCUMENTARY

This is roughly the point at which the documentary begins. It details the rise of Malcolm X as a public figure from the late 1950s to his ultimate murder in 1965. Malcolm, later Malik El-Shabazz, gave everything to the Nation of Islam and received everything in return—his home, his wife, his place in the community.  However, Malcolm became so popular that he eventually posed a threat to Elijah Muhammad and his sons and they broke with one another. Eventually, there were threats and actual violence as Malcolm revealed that Elijah Muhammad had slept with several of his young secretaries and fathered children with them. This revelation had little effect on his believers, except to galvanize their opposition to Malcolm.

And it’s this internal Muslim conflict that drives the film. In interview after interview shown in the documentary, Abdur-Rahman pursues the questions that personally bother him, which involve (for the most part) concerns about the importation of New Jersey mosque members to murder Malcolm. Curiously, however, he does not explore the fact that the current head of the NOI, Louis Farrakhan, has a connection. The former Louis Walcott, Farrakhan wrote and distributed a document which spelled out his feelings following Malcolm’s betrayal of his former master:

The die is set, and Malcolm shall not escape, especially after such evil, foolish talk about his benefactor (Elijah Muhammad) … Such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death and would have met with death if it had not been for Muhammad’s confidence in Allah for victory over the enemies.[4]

There is no doubt of a climate of hate surrounding Malcolm with respect to his former associates within the Nation of Islam. However, there was also continual harassment and violence emanating from the police and FBI.

To take one example, in January of 1958 a pair of detectives working for the NYC police went to Malcolm’s apartment without a warrant to search for a woman called Margaret Dorsey. Malcolm told the detectives he wanted to see a warrant. Instead, the detectives opened fire on the apartment where his pregnant wife was also living. Although they did not hit anyone, this brought home the level of danger surrounding the minister even at this relatively early date.[5]

However, in addition to these direct assaults, there were plots being developed within the government. CIA Director Richard Helms had made tracking Malcolm a “priority” beginning in 1964.[6] Strikingly, this was three years before the CIA began its own MH/CHAOS program, which was designed to track and destroy left wing and black resistance movements, and which began via the involvement of Helms and another name familiar to JFK researchers: James Jesus Angleton.[7]

Further plots arose out of COINTELPRO[8], a program designed specifically to overthrow, neutralize, or kill black leaders and replace them with FBI-approved figures. (In other words, to mirror domestically what covert operations had been doing successfully in other countries.) William Sullivan, J. Edgar Hoover’s handpicked assistant for all investigative operations, helmed the project. Sullivan, through COINTELPRO, successfully infiltrated and damaged left-wing movements in the period between 1956 and 1971.

In 1964, Sullivan circulated a memo proposing that a “new national Negro leader” be selected after first destroying their three main targets: Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and MLK. Sullivan even had an idea for their replacement: a corporate lawyer named Samuel R. Pierce, Jr.[9]

Later that same year, a rumour circulated that “Black Muslims” were planning to assassinate Lyndon Johnson. According to news reports, Malcolm X was wanted for questioning. Malcolm immediately realized what was going on—and although he had been meeting Alex Haley to discuss his life, he did not want to discuss the Johnson assassination rumor. If ever there was a day to be a little frightened, that would have been the day. He would have realized the scale of the forces aligned against him.

Karl Evanzz notes that Elijah Muhammad would have understood the meaning as well:

For Muhammad, the meaning of the report was readily apparent. He knew that the allegations were a fabrication, but he also realized the underlying message: if the FBI leaked a story linking Malcolm X with Lee Harvey Oswald and the Fair Play for Committee, Muhammad would once again find himself in Washington facing the microphones of the House Un-American Activities Commission. Another HUAC probe could land both him and Malcolm X in prison … There was no way he could permit Malcolm X to return to the Nation of Islam.[10]

Similarly, in July of 1964, Malcolm went to an outdoor restaurant in Cairo. His food tasted strange to him and he realized that he recognized his waiter from having seen him before in New York. He had been poisoned. He was rushed to the hospital, had his stomach pumped, and barely survived. Malcolm of course understood that the Nation of Islam did not have global agents. This had to be a U.S. government operation.[11]

THE NIGHT OF THE ASSASSINATION

For the most part, the documentary shows the basic facts of the actual murder of Malcolm X with reasonable fidelity, although once again there are serious omissions. The assassination took place on February 21, 1965, in the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. Malcolm had been invited to give a speech at this location.

The Audubon consisted of a long hall. Malcolm was on one side on a stage with a podium.

At the other end of the hall, facing him, was the main entrance to the building. In between some folding chairs had been set up.

Before the talk begins, as Malcolm arrived at the podium, there was a fake altercation between two men—that drew people’s attention to them. One of the men yelled, “Get your hands out of my pockets!” Meanwhile, a smoke bomb was thrown into the room.

First, one man with a shotgun ran up to Malcolm and shot him. He then ran out a side door.

Then, two men with .45 caliber pistols ran up and shot Malcolm some more, while he was on the ground. They fled out the back way, out the main entrance. One of the men who ran out the back was caught by the people outside, who proceeded to beat him almost to death.

The documentary makes a big deal out of revealing the identity of William X Bradley as the man with the shotgun who murdered Malcolm X. However, this is not a reveal to anyone who followed the case. Also, the fact that he lived in the neighborhood and had been brought up on charges was well known. One of the bright spots in Manning Marable’s book, for all its flaws, is that Marable points out that Bradley appears to have been protected by the government—even years later:

On April 11, 1968, the Livingston National Bank of Livingston, New Jersey, was robbed by three masked men brandishing three handguns and one sawed-off shotgun. They escaped with over $12,500. The following year Bradley and a second man, James Moore, were charged with the bank robbery and were brought to trial. Bradley, however, received privileged treatment and he retained his own attorney separate from Moore. The charges against him were ultimately dismissed; meanwhile, after a first trial ending in a hung jury, Moore was convicted in a second trial.

Bradley’s special treatment by the criminal justice system in 1969-1970 raises the question of whether he was an FBI informant, either after the assassination of Malcolm X or very possibly even before. It would perhaps explain why Bradley took a different exit from the murder scene than the two other shooters, shielding him from the crowd’s retaliation. It suggests that Bradley and possibly other Newark mosque members may have actively collaborated on the shooting with local law enforcement and/or the FBI.[12]

One of the real missed opportunities of the documentary is the stunning interviews with Senator Corey Booker and Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver in episode five of the series. The filmmakers spring the news to Booker that Bradley, the alleged assassin of Malcolm X, appeared in one of his campaign videos. When asked whether he knows Bradley, Booker says yes and that he’s a wonderful man in the community. Booker looks shocked and purports not to have ever heard of the fact that Bradley had a connection to Malcolm X.

Except that in the other interviews in the documentary, individuals repeatedly assert that everyone in the community knows about Bradley. They just choose to “leave it alone.” However, instead of asking any follow up questions, the documentary moves on to other matters. It’s incredible. They just let Booker off the hook as soon as they catch him on it.

Now, normally there were a lot of police officers when Malcolm X spoke anywhere, but there were none on the day of the assassination. The lack of police presence was notable and the documentary has interviews with witnesses who confirm this. They also describe how lackadaisical the police were in their response afterward to the shooting.

What is glossed over is the fact that numerous FBI infiltrators were present in the Ballroom that day. One of them, John X. Ali, met with one of the shooters the day before the shooting. Another FBI man, Gene Roberts, was the man who got to the body of Malcolm X before anyone else and attempted CPR to revive him.[13] Meanwhile, Betty Shabazz screamed and tried to get to her husband.

It is interesting that Roberts was the man who got to Malcolm X first, because it fits a pattern of other assassinations. Three years later, when Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis, the first person to get to his body was an FBI informant named Marrell McCullough. McCullough later went on to work for the CIA.[14] Then, in December 1969, when the Black Panther organizer Fred Hampton was murdered by Chicago police, the man who drugged Hampton so he wouldn’t wake up was the BPP treasurer and also, an FBI informant.[15] When the assassinations take place, it seems efforts are made to have the FBI asset confirm the deceased.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Malcolm X was killed at about 3 PM.

That night, the Audubon Ballroom was scheduled to host the George Washington Celebration.

Instead of canceling the event, the body was removed, the blood cleaned off the floor, and by 7 PM the party went on as scheduled. Four hours after he was killed, people were dancing literally on the spot he died. They danced in honor of George Washington.

Symbolism doesn’t get any more obvious than that. Or, as Malcolm himself put it: “The job of the Negro civil rights leader is to make the Negro forget that the wolf and the fox both belong to the same family. Both are canines; and no matter which one of them the Negro places his trust in, he never ends up in the White House, but always the doghouse.”[16]

About a month before he was assassinated, Malcolm met with the poet and activist Amir Baraka. In that meeting, Malcolm proposed that activists needed to concentrate on making “…politically viable a Black united front in the U.S.” As Baraka points out: “This is the opposite of the religious sectarianism of the Nation of Islam. It is an admission that Islam is not the only road to revolutionary consciousness and that Muslims, Christians, Nationalists, and Socialists can be joined together as an anti-imperialist force in the U.S.”.[17]

Malcolm was opening up in that last year of his life, which terrified the reactionary elements in the U.S. government who arranged his assassination. Any documentary worth its salt has to take that as its starting point and move forward from there, because it is frankly obvious. It also becomes even more obvious when the greater context of the other assassinations, the movements, and the specific government operations for which voluminous documentation exists. The ultimate message of Who Killed Malcolm X? sacrifices clarity and context by treating the assassination like an ordinary murder, chasing individual suspects and missing the underlying political structures. Unfortunately, that means the six hours of this series wind up in disappointment, as for the most part it relies on the most unedifying aspects of the story.

But perhaps it’s to be expected. It was always unlikely that Netflix was going to bankroll something that really rocks the boat. In fact, we know what happens to people who try. The filmmaker Louis Lomax, in 1968, who originally brought The Hate that Hate Produced to the attention of Mike Wallace in the Fifties, wanted to make a film about Malcolm X. A film in which the intelligence agencies, not the Nation of Islam, would be blamed for the murder. In other words, it was an attempt to make an Executive Action-style film, an extremely radical project.[18]

The film never got made. The brakes on Louis Lomax’s car stopped functioning one day in July 1970. Lomax died in the resulting crash.[19] That too, alas, is familiar.


In the wake of the new documentary series, Jared Ball has also registered his dissent with it:

New Netflix Documentary Avoids the Why in Favor of the “Who Killed Malcolm X?


[1] DiEugenio, Jim, and Lisa Pease, ed. The Assassinations (Feral House: Los Angeles CA 2003), 404.

[2] Grant, Colin, “Negro With a Hat: The rise and fall of Marcus Garvey,” The Independent, 10 February 2008.

[3] Powers, Richard, The Life of J. Edgar Hoover: Secrecy and Power (The Free Press: New York 1987), 50.

[4] Carson, Clayborne, Malcolm X: The FBI File (Carroll & Graf: New York 1991), 43.

[5] Evanzz, Karl, The Judas Factor: The Plot to Kill Malcolm X (Thunder’s Mouth Press: New York), 73.

[6] Randeree, Bilal, “The Malcolm X Story Lives On,” Alajazeera News, 28 April 2010.

[7] Rafalko, Frank J., MH/CHAOS: The CIA’s Campaign Against the Radical New Left and the Black Panthers (Naval Institute Press: Annapolis, MD 2011), 15.

[8] COINTELPRO documents

[9] Evanzz, 172.

[10] Evanzz, 175.

[11] DiEugenio and Pease, 396.

[12] Marable, Manning, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Viking: New York 2011), 475.

[13] Marable, 439.

[14] DiEugenio, Jim, “The 13th Juror,” (review).

[15] Green, Joseph E. “The Open Assassination of Fred Hampton,”

[16] X, Malcolm, The End of White World Supremacy (Arcade Publishing: New York 2011), 137.

[17] Baraka, Amir, “Malcolm as Ideology,” Malcolm X in Our Own Image (St. Martin’s Press: New York 1992), 29.

[18] Canby, Vincent, “Two Studios Plan Malcolm X Films: James Baldwin and Louis Lomax writing scripts,” The New York Times, 8 March 1968.

[19] Evanzz, 319.

Last modified on Monday, 09 March 2020 16:25
Joseph E. Green

Joseph E. Green is a political researcher and playwright. He currently serves on the board of directors of the Hidden History Center and is the author of the collections Dissenting Views and Dissenting Views II. He also co-produced and co-wrote the film King Kill 63, which premiered at the Dallas International Film Festival in 2015 and now seeks distribution.  He also maintains his own website, www.dissentingviews.com.

Find Us On ...

Sitemap

Please publish modules in offcanvas position.