NEW YORK — MORE than 25 years after the assassination of Malcolm X, a struggle is under way to define the meaning of his life.
Books, magazine and newspaper articles, and television documentaries are being churned out in an attempt to analyze this influential African-American.
The engine driving most of the current interest is the new film "Malcolm X." It was No. 3 at the box office last weekend, its first in release, taking in more than $14 million. The numbers have been especially impressive because the film's 3-hour, 21-minute length means it can be screened only three times per day, compared with five times a day for most films.
Director Spike Lee, actor Denzel Washington, and Malcolm X's widow and daughter, all of whom were involved in the making of the film, say they hope the picture will be more than just a commercial success, that it will correct long-standing misimpressions.
During a round-table discussion in New York recently, they were asked what they thought the biggest misconception was.
"That he was angry all the time, and that he was violent," said Mr. Washington, who plays Malcolm X in the film. "He wasn't violent. He made perfect sense. He said if someone is blowing up your church and killing your babies and lynching your father or grandfather, and your government is unwilling or unable to protect you, then you should protect yourself. That's not violence, that's intelligence."
"The greatest myth is that he was violent," agreed Betty Shabazz, widow of Malcolm X and project consultant for the movie. "My husband was not violent. He was never part of any violence. The only violence was his death, and he did not commit it...."
"He said [there should be] freedom and respect for members of the African diaspora ... by any means necessary," Dr. Shabazz said. "That's not a violent statement, it's a comprehensive statement.... It means you might accomplish your ends by political or social or religious or academic activities.... Malcolm's point was that if you are a member of the human family, as we are all made in the image of God and the likeness of God, then all of us should be able to aspire to positions of influence and gravity. "
To Attilah Shabazz, Malcolm X's oldest daughter, the biggest misconception is "that he was inspired by anger, motivated by vengeance." She has been helping to promote the film, and also runs a well-established theater and film production company (Nucleus Incorporated) with Martin Luther King Jr.'s daughter.
Malcolm X was not speaking "angrily" as a mature civil-rights leader, Ms. Shabazz asserted, "but was pointing out issues that people were not talking about in the '60s, because [these issues] were away from the mainstream.... Of course he was serious, focused, dedicated. He knew his self-worth and was hoping that people would get a sense of their own self-worth.... But when he came home, I saw a warm human being - not in spite of his day's work, but inclusive of his day's work. I got to see someone who l oved my mother, who nurtured his children." Choosing an upbeat finale
This vision of a humane and temperate Malcolm X sheds light on Mr. Lee's decision to follow the movie's tragic assassination scene with an upbeat finale - incorporating such figures as actor Ossie Davis and activist Nelson Mandela - that emphasizes the positive side of Malcolm X's life and work. (An upcoming TV special searches for the "real" Malcolm X. Story, Page 14.)
Lee himself says he feels anger at the condition of blacks both in Malcolm X's era and today. Still, the thrust of his movie is not an expression of undiluted anger and frustration; it is more complex and multifaceted.
"I think one can be hopeful and angry at the same time," he told the round table, "because that's what I am. I think any black person in this country has a right to be angry." But despite this, he added, "we've got to give people hope. We want people to come out of the theater uplifted."
Lee has stirred controversy by insisting that no white filmmaker could have treated the life of Malcolm X with as much insight and sensitivity as a black director. This attitude played a part in Norman Jewison, a white director with solid credentials in socially aware films such as "In the Heat of the Night" and "A Soldier's Story," being replaced by Lee in the "Malcolm X" director's chair. Black director is important
In recent days some critics have remarked ironically that "X" takes a conventional Hollywood approach, not much different from what a white filmmaker would have employed. Speaking a few days before the premiere, however, Lee stuck to his belief in the importance of an African-American director for such a profoundly African-American story.
"I think it would be very hard for even the most accomplished white director to do it," he said. "I think any white director who was really honest with himself would have known to `let me leave this one alone - this is too hot to handle.' "
Added Lee: "A white director can never know what it feels like to be called a nigger, what it means to be a second-class citizen in this country, to not be able to get a cab here in New York City, to see white women cross the street and clutch their pocketbooks, to see white people in cars lock their doors ... to have the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end when you see a cop approach you...."
Washington, who has won praise from critics for his portrayal of Malcolm X, added, "It doesn't matter how many movies I've made or how much money I have in my pocket. I'm a black man, and 9 out of 10 cabs will go past me. That's just one example. You [white people] can understand or sympathize with that, but you can't know what it is to be in my shoes."
The experience of making "Malcolm X" has helped him gain a "sharper focus" on such problems, however. "It gave me insight into solutions ... like studying history, and the importance of building self-esteem, and really finding out what contributions [blacks] have made to this society. And to the world!"
Among the challenges Washington faced in his role was the question of how to make Malcolm's religious experiences - his conversion to the Nation of Islam movement, and later to a traditional Islamic faith - a living reality on the screen. "There was a lot of prayer," the actor said, when asked how he handled this task. "I had some very strong, spiritual men around me when working on this film.... Every day we started and ended the day with a prayer. I did, anyway. There was a lot of spirituality involved
- not just using it to make the film, but hopefully using it to do something for the betterment of mankind." `X' is `a nice little coda'
Lee isn't certain what movie he'll work on next, but he says it will be much different from all his films to date. He considers "Malcolm X" a "nice little coda" to the first part of his career. Whatever the critics say, he says, it will do an effective job of educating today's youngsters to the realities of Malcolm X's life and thoughts.
He also says the most important critic of all has already endorsed the movie. The late Alex Haley, who helped with writing "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," visited Lee not long before Haley's death last year, when the film was still in progress. Lee says he showed Mr. Haley the first hour of the movie, and Haley offered him "the biggest compliment I could ever receive on this film."
"He said Malcolm would have loved it."