AN extraordinary African-American leader who during his short life spoke to a tiny minority of mostly urban Northern blacks has today become a symbol for vast numbers.
What Malcolm X symbolizes is still fairly vague and complicated - though it is safe to say his persona as a black Muslim nationalist provides an outlet for the mingled rage and injustice felt, in particular, by many young blacks.
Whether Malcolm X would want to be such a symbol is a fair question. Spike Lee's epic film, "Malcolm X" should help sort out the issue. Mr. Lee "mainstreams" Malcolm a bit, but retains enough of his radicalism to make him credible. Through Denzel Washington's intelligent performance, Malcolm becomes more than a two-dimensional "face" in which the various angers of young blacks are reflected.
What comes through in the Lee film is the amazing distance traveled by Malcolm X. His life is a study in transformations - from petty thief, to tough criminal, to a rebirth in prison under the disciplines of Elijah Muhammad's black Islam, to an even higher ideal of a world of shared love among all colors and races. This final plateau earned Malcolm X the enemies that finally gunned him down during a speech in New York, after he broke with the Nation of Islam.
Lee is to be commended for giving attention to this neglected last phase of Malcolm's life - his trip to Mecca, where he prayed with people of many nations. Lee easily could have left the audience with a mainly nationalist message - but that would have been unfair to everyone, including Malcolm. In today's world, nationalism, whether black or white - German, Russian, Serbian, Japanese, American - leads frequently to ignorance, with pain and injustice for all. But will audiences pay attention?
One lesson that parents and public officials might take from the latter part of Malcolm's life is the value of travel and exposure to different places. In or out of America, young people ought to be given broader views.