Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
The revision of Malcolm's image has been a long time coming, but in recent years a new Malcolm has emerged, one who began as a single-minded zealot but by the end of his life, after a visit to Mecca, had undergone a transformation into a leader with a much wider vision, who preached that true Islam drew no color line. Spike Lee's 1992 film "Malcolm X" furthered this process, and today Malcolm X's death is widely considered a lost opportunity for America, instead of a historical footnote to the other three famous deaths.
Assassination theorists have picked clean the bones of the John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King murders. With Malcolm, although there has long been a feeling that the full truth was not known, there was never the same intensity of curiosity. Now a new documentary named "Brother Minister" reopens the case of his assassination, and makes compelling claims that all but one of his real killers went free.
The film, directed by Jack Baxter and written by Baxter with Lee's researcher Jefri Aalmuhammed and Joan Claire Chabriel, traces the steps by which Malcolm X went from being the trusted lieutenant of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad to his most hated enemy.
It contains eyewitness testimony from many of those who were there when he was killed in the Audubon Ballroom in New York City on Feb. 21, 1965 - including undercover New York policeman Gene Roberts. It talks to many others - W. Deen Mohammed, Elijah's son; Thomas Johnson, who served 20 years for the killing but protested his innocence; retired New York FBI chief James Fox; attorney William Kunstler, who tried to reopen the case, and Benjamin 2X Karim, who was standing next to Malcolm when he died.
Their evidence is, of course, contradictory and sometimes confusing. But out of it emerges a composite picture of a day on which Malcolm seemed almost doomed to die. In the months preceding his death, his house was firebombed, and there were threats to his life in Nation of Islam newspapers. On the day of his death, there was inadequate or (some say) no security at the Audubon Ballroom. His bodyguards were mysteriously replaced with another group just before he appeared on the stage. And the conspiracy continued with the charging of Thomas Hayer and two other men that Hayer insisted had nothing to do with it.
Who did? It was after viewing this film that Betty Shabazz, Malcolm's widow, went on television last year to charge that Louis Farrakhan, current leader of the Nation of Islam, was involved. But the film does not name Farrakhan; it names four members of the Nation's New Jersey mosque as the additional trigger men, but then widens the net to show an informal process that may also have involved "disinformation squads" of the FBI.
Quoting from recently declassified FBI documents, the film argues that the FBI was alarmed by Malcolm's rise to influence, and especially by his post-Mecca move toward the political center, where he was seen as a potentially dangerous, charismatic leader. The FBI forged letters to spread the seeds of dissent among black Islamic groups, the film says, including one letter that Elijah Muhammad thought was from Malcolm himself. It was a shadowy process, according to Baba Zak A. Kondo, author of Unraveling the Assassination of Malcolm X and one of the film's chief sources, who says the disinformation effort "put out a certain energy, and the (Nation of Islam private security force) Fruit of Islam picked up on that energy." In other words, according to the noted black historian John Henrik Clarke, although his former Black Muslim allies "may have killed him, the direction came from outside." And the movie remains inevitably vague about where that direction came from. It does, however, contain fascinating documentary footage of Malcolm X himself, which fleshes out the events that Spike Lee dramatized in his film. In "Malcolm X," Malcolm grows disillusioned about his former leader's personal life. In "Brother Minister," we see him predicting an attempt on his own life, and saying, "They are afraid I will tell what I know, that Elijah is the father of eight children by six different teenage girls...." Whether or not that was the motive, Malcolm X was dead within days. There is a chilling coda. In 1993, Farrakhan, now leader of the Nation of Islam, stung by criticism inspired by Spike Lee's film, addressed a rally that was supposedly closed to the media. In video footage obtained by Baxter, he addresses rhetorical remarks to his white accusers: "Did you make Malcolm? Did you clean up Malcolm? Did you put Malcolm out before the world? Was Malcolm your traitor, or was he ours? And if we dealt with him like a nation deals with a traitor, what the hell business is it of yours?" "Brother Minister" is probably not the last word on the death of Malcolm X. It is more like a brave initial effort to penetrate the thicket of rumors, accusations, evidence and testimony that has grown up around the event. There are times when Baxter offers so much evidence, often contradictory, that we are not sure exactly what point he is making. But the film offers an invaluable opportunity to hear the surviving witnesses, participants and experts speak in their own words, and eventually an overall picture emerges: In the words of Benjamin Karim, Malcolm's legacy endures, and those who killed him "created what they were trying to destroy."
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A tribute to Doris Day.