I Am Not Your Negro is out in theaters now (buy your tickets here). To celebrate, we present a week of articles honoring the film.
On February 21, 1965, African-American Muslim leader Malcolm X was gunned down in Harlem’s Audobon Ballroom by three assassins affiliated with the Nation of Islam. Several weeks later, Doubleday, one of the most prominent publishing houses in America, canceled the release of the slain minister’s autobiography for fear of reprisals from his enemies. The publication of the book, written with noted African-American author Alex Haley, then fell to Grove Press, which introduced The Autobiography of Malcolm X later that year.
Sales of the autobiography proved especially brisk once the paperback was released in 1967, which was around the time producer Marvin Worth began negotiating with Haley and Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz, for the movie rights. Thanks to an assist from writer and friend of the family, James Baldwin, Worth closed the deal, and immediately went to work on what he called “one of our great stories.” In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Worth, a Brooklyn native who traversed the same 1940s NYC jazz clubs that enchanted a young Malcolm “Red” Little, effused, “He was a great example of how someone can take himself from the place he came from and get to where he got as a human being.”
Though Worth was captivated by Malcolm’s intellectual and spiritual evolution, he could not, as a white man, fully grasp what it meant to be brought up by an outspoken supporter of Pan-African leader Marcus Garvey in the segregated north of Milwaukee and Lansing. So he turned to one of the finest writers of his day to bring Malcolm’s story to conflicted life. He hired James Baldwin.
Baldwin had completed two plays (The Amen Corner and Blues for Mister Charlie) by this point in his career, but he was unproven as a screenwriter, and, from the very beginning, under considerable pressure from past associates of the minister to serve their vision of Malcolm. There were Civil Rights leaders who considered him an irritant, needlessly complicating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s pleas for nonviolent resistance. There was the Nation of Islam, the organization that, through the holy word of Elijah Muhammad, had delivered a wayward Malcolm Little from wickedness (and either a life in prison or a violent death). There were his brothers and sisters who stuck with him after he severed his ties to the NOI, who were inspired by his more inclusive post-Hajj message of Afro-American unity. Malcolm X died a work-in-progress at the age of thirty-nine; he was still radical (e.g. he wanted the United Nations to bring charges against the U.S. for the violation of black human rights), but he also allowed that people of other cultures and skin tone could help his cause. His story ended on an ellipsis, and everyone who knew him thought they understood him better than everyone else.
If anyone possessed the intellectual acumen to make sense of these opposed motives and ideas, it was Baldwin. But his deep admiration of Malcolm X (on display now in Raoul Peck’s brilliant I Am Not Your Negro) and sensitivity to the disparate, fiercely-held beliefs of those who loved the minister with equal fervor, weighed heavily on Baldwin. This was a difficult time in Baldwin’s life. The exciting young author of Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room was now in his forties; he was drinking too much, and was emotionally drained after years of lecturing on and demonstrating in the Civil Rights Movement. He had left the United States for France in 1948 when he tired of the double-barrel oppression of blacks and gays, but found himself duty-bound to speak out against injustice in the country he still, fundamentally, loved. All of this had taken its toll. In the midst of this personal and professional turmoil, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Finally, after too many unproductive months, Worth brought in blacklisted screenwriter Arnold Perl to help Baldwin focus on structure. Eventually, a 250-page screenplay thudded onto Worth’s desk; it was overlong, contemptuous of Hollywood biographical formula and, particularly in its final act, vague.
That last shortcoming was due to Baldwin’s justifiable fear of the Nation of Islam, which ferociously denied any involvement in Malcolm X’s murder, and wasn’t above intimidating those who claimed otherwise. Still, Baldwin felt hamstrung by Worth’s and the studio’s (Columbia Pictures) directive to emphasize his depiction Malcolm as a victim of all people. According to Baldwin, they thought “the tragedy of Malcolm’s life was that he had been mistreated, early on, by some whites, and betrayed (later) by many blacks.” In a sense, they were after the usual white liberal exculpation, while demonstrating how this complicated man had lived to see his own chickens come home to roost.
Baldwin bolted the project in 1969, and Worth, having failed at Columbia, got the film sold to Warner Bros where, for the next two decades, he ran through numerous screenwriters. He hired acclaimed African-American writers like David Bradley and Charles Fuller. He gave Calder Willingham, extraordinarily white but hot off The Graduate, a shot. David Mamet, who at the time had never written a substantial black character that wasn’t a pimp or a prison rapist (in Edmond), turned in a draft that, per Worth, was “Mamet’s version of the Civil Rights Movement”. Sidney Lumet circled the project for a while, and Eddie Murphy got interested (he wanted to play Alex Haley, while, reportedly, Richard Pryor was sought for the role of Malcolm X). Then Norman Jewison entered the picture, which, in 1990, rankled a hotshot filmmaker named Spike Lee. A master of self-promotion, Lee spoke forcefully against the idea of a white director being entrusted with the story of Malcolm X. There had been too many white savior travesties of black history; in the late ‘80s alone, there was Cry Freedom, Mississippi Burning and Glory. African-American filmmakers were on the rise; they had a right, and Hollywood had an obligation, to see that these stories were entrusted to artists deeply connected to the material.
Two decades later, Spike Lee passed the audition, and he discovered Worth had been sitting on the perfect screenplay all this time. It the 250-page beast credited to James Baldwin and Arnold Perl.
That iteration of the screenplay has never been published, but Baldwin, in 1972, released his “scenario” based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Though it was received with little fanfare, the book, One Day When I Was Lost, is, for its first two acts, very close to Spike Lee’s finished product. The bombast of Lee’s opening is gone (Baldwin could not anticipate the cultural importance of the film in 1992), but the flashback structure and indelible imagery is right there on the page. Baldwin succinctly captures the horror of Malcolm’s father, Earl Little, face down on the streetcar track as his time on this planet clatters to an end. He knows Boston and New York City need to be the emphasis of the first act; the music, the clothes and the attitude are extravagant and intoxicating, all described from the vantage point of a bright young man who fell under the same spell. Interestingly, Baldwin is less inclined to use Malcolm’s words to guide his audience through the early chapters of the minister’s life. He has absorbed every detail of Malcolm’s early life, and he uses images (the house fire, white sheets, a terse depiction of Louise Little’s clenched fists fixed over a swollen belly where what will be Malcolm resides) in a way that may reward those familiar with the subject more than neophytes. It’s a swirl of visuals, all of vital importance, presaging the poetic specificity of Michael Mann’s magnificent, intricately detailed opening to Ali.
Baldwin’s treatment of young Malcolm differs from Lee’s in that he’s willing to depict Red as vulnerable and overmatched. Not that Lee had a great deal of leeway once he cast the perpetually cocksure Denzel Washington in the title role, but Lee’s Malcolm is bad as Cagney when confronted with danger or disrespect. Baldwin’s Malcolm has swagger, but he’s portrayed as a rube in his first encounter with West Indian Archie at the bar: he doesn’t know how to make a drink order, he’s clumsy and he’s embarrassingly deferential when he nearly scuffs Archie’s “forty-dollar Florsheims”. This Malcolm doesn’t have every angle figured. He’s searching from the very beginning whereas Lee’s version is more determined.
One flaw of Baldwin’s scenario is his unwillingness to name the Nation of Islam or, specifically, Elijah Muhammad. It’s an understandable elision given the organization’s protective reputation back in the late 1960s, but it unmoors the story from real life and nudges it in an oddly surreal direction, as if it’s depicting an alternate history. Baldwin’s scenario also gets increasingly talky as it moves into the final act of Malcolm’s life; he abandons the visual storytelling of the first act, and diminishes, for instance, the power of the mirror motif he develops so elegantly in the first hundred pages.
But Baldwin remains innately attuned to Malcolm’s emotional growth, particularly as Betty enters his life. Their romance is more developed in Baldwin’s hands, and Malcolm’s concern over his absentee parenting (reminiscent of his own father’s preoccupation with Marcus Garvey), hits harder in the scenario than it does in Lee’s movie. It’s a difference in style and temperament. Lee’s film is built to last, to provoke, to jar young people out of their materialistic slumber and rejoin the fight for civil rights (and, to this end, it’s never been more relevant). Baldwin’s scenario is a long-form muse on themes previously explored in his essential The Fire Next Time (dehumanize and disempower at your peril, white folks), as well as a study of martyrdom. In his story, Betty gets the last word, a reiteration of a line spoken earlier in the scenario. “You are present when you are away.”
This is true of the subject and, in this time of renewed racial hatred, the author. As basic human decency falls away, Baldwin is present to remind us that our rights and our dignity are not guaranteed. They are won. By any means necessary.