“Malcolm X”: 20 Things The Movie Got Wrong (Or Neglected To Clarify)

As I sit here reading, “The Dead Are Rising: The Life Of Malcolm X” by Les Payne and Tamara Payne, I think about his life and how our reality would be had he not been assassinated. The more I read about him, the more I understand the need for someone like him in our world, despite what many have said and felt about him and his teachings. This book certainly takes my understanding to an entirely new level, but that’s a blog for another day, maybe next Black History Month.

And no, the fact that this is his birthday is not lost on me. In fact I think this is as good a time as any to post this.

I just recently watched Spike Lee’s 1992 biography “Malcolm X” (released 30 years ago, this November) for the umpteenth time and the second time with my youngest son. But having read Alex Haley’s “The Autobiography Of Malcolm X” twice, I felt it necessary to clear some things up for him during our viewing. As inspired as he was by watching this film, I definitely didn’t want him thinking certain things to be fact, when indeed they weren’t. Especially if he ever got into conversation with someone about it/him who was more knowledgeable.

That being said, I’d like to share a few items with you, with the caveat that what I share is based solely on the Haley biography, by which the movie is inspired. This new book that I’m reading may reveal conflicting information, particularly since a great many people were interviewed to produce it. Also, keep in mind that I, in no way, am saying that everything I read in the autobiography is cold fact. It is merely a comparison. Always remember that there are (at least) two sides to every story.

Anyway, let’s get into it, shall we? I wanted to keep the list down to 10 items, but as many of my readers know, I love my trivia and there are some interesting things to share. I’ll try to keep my points brief, but here are:


(…and obviously, Warning – Here Be Spoilers, although the statute of limitations for a movie is six months.)

  1. The ages of several characters were much different than you would believe. Malcolm was only a teenager when the movie began, and his “lindy-hopping” dance partner Laura (played by Theresa Randle) was just a junior in high school. Malcolm’s friend “Shorty” (Spike Lee) was 10 years his senior.
  2. Malcolm was indeed a very good dancer. Many speculate that the extended dance scene in the beginning was embellished artistically to add depth and charm to Malcolm’s character. He was, in fact, one of the more popular lindy-hoppers and often sought-after dance partner of many a partygoer.
  3. Laura’s transformation was greater than indicated. After being jilted by Malcolm at the dance for a white woman, (although not known to be the reason) Laura began drinking (defying her grandmother) then using drugs. She did in fact become a prostitute. However, learning to hate men, she eventually became a lesbian. Years later, she turned her life back around and finished school but was still observed as being “high” quite often around the neighborhood, abandoning her college dreams. Malcolm blamed himself for her life choices until the day he died.
  4. Sophia and her blonde sidekick were more than friends. In the movie, you see that Shorty also had an interracial relationship with a girl named Peg. It is not mentioned that Peg is Sophia’s 17-year-old sister.
  5. Malcolm was not the only person popularly known as “Red”. While establishing a name for himself, Malcolm was called “Detroit Red” because there were two other well-known “Reds”, whom he knew and eventually worked with: one was nicknamed “St. Louis Red”, the other went by the name “Chicago Red”. The latter, you also know as Redd Foxx, comedian and character Fred G. Sanford of Sanford And Son fame.
  6. Malcolm did not work for “West Indian Archie”. Although Malcolm “ran numbers” in Harlem for two different employers, he was merely a client of Archie’s like everyone else. When he claimed to have picked the right number, which Archie disputed, they were neither colleagues nor friends.
  7. Malcolm was not arrested while rinsing his hair in the toilet. Although the hair incident did occur, it was actually during a trip to Michigan in the wintertime. After putting the congolene (homemade hair chemicals used to create his “conk” hairstyle) in his hair, he discovered that the sink’s pipes were frozen. He ran to the toilet and stuck his head in, flushing repeatedly, to keep from suffering scalp burns from the lye ingredient.
  8. Malcolm never confessed to “palming the bullet”. In one of the movie’s more memorable scenes, Malcom shows Shorty the bullet that, by sleight of hand, he convinced everyone was in the gun. Malcolm used this deception to frighten their new criminal partner Rudy while forcing a game of Russian Roulette on him to assert his leadership. In reality, he never told Shorty and hesitated to share it while narrating to author Alex Haley, who wrote the autobiography. He was worried that such a ruse would destroy any credibility with the readers who would think that if he was bluffing then, he might be bluffing now (in telling his story). Assuming he lived to see its publication, which sadly, he didn’t.
  9. Why Malcolm was arrested. Many moviegoers believed that Rudy betrayed Malcolm’s gang as an act of vengeance for the gun stunt, especially since he was not arrested nor present in the subsequent courtroom scene. Malcolm was actually apprehended while getting an expensive watch repaired that had already been reported as stolen to all of the jewelers in Boston. While picking it up, he was arrested by the police, who were signaled by the shop owner.
  10. Being arrested likely saved Malcolm’s life. Malcolm was arrested shortly after his affair with Sophia (who was married the entire time they were dating) was discovered by her husband, who later went to Malcolm’s apartment to kill him. In fact, her husband was at Malcolm’s apartment with a gun during the arrest.
  11. Being called “Satan”. It’s implied that the prison chaplain referred to Malcolm as “Satan (has a question)” out of spite for Malcolm’s rejection of his help while in solitary, among other things. Malcolm was actually given that nickname by the prisoners in the cellblock because of his overt anti-religious attitude.
  12. Malcolm did not convert to Islam while in prison. In the film, he met an inmate named Bain who introduced him to Muslim philosophies, thus leading to his conversion. Bain’s character did not exist. He did, however, meet a highly respected and influential prisoner known as “Bimby” who challenged Malcolm’s identity and failure to “use his brain”. The people responsible for introducing, educating and convincing him to follow that path were his own brothers and sisters in Detroit and Chicago (who had all converted, some becoming ministers) via letters to prison.
  13. Malcolm wore glasses because of a condition he developed in prison. When the guards ordered “lights out”, Malcolm, in his new hunger for knowledge, took advantage of every opportunity to read. At night, he huddled down on the floor of the cell, by the bars, using the dim glow from the corridor. As a result, he developed astigmatism, resulting in his need for glasses, where he once had 20/20 vision.
  14. The man beaten by police. In another iconic scene, Malcolm and about fifty members of Temple Seven’s men marched to the police station and then to the hospital to ensure medical treatment of Muslim brother Johnson Hinton. What is not shown is that Hinton had to have a steel plate placed in his skull and later won a lawsuit against New York City for police brutality for over $70,000.
  15. The white woman who confronted Malcolm. In another scene, a young white student at New England college approached Malcolm, asking what she could do to help his cause, to which he replied “nothing” and walked away, leaving her feeling dejected and appearing perplexed. In reality, there was a small, slightly different conversation, during which she defended that all white people weren’t evil. At the end of the exchange, she asked in frustration, “What can I do?!?” Hearing his “nothing” reply, she burst into tears and ran to a taxi. He later stated that he wished he could find that woman to apologize, after his change of position regarding race relations.
  16. Malcolm claimed that he only had one argument with his wife. In the movie, Malcolm and his wife Betty had an explosive argument about their financial situation and the rumors of leader Elijah Muhammad’s sexual indiscretions. Although the argument did occur, it was only about his attitude towards money, as he was not profiting from his speaking engagements and notoriety. It was the one and only domestic quarrel they ever had (by his account) in their marriage.
  17. Malcolm’s college speaking engagements. Reportedly, Malcolm learned from Elijah Muhammad’s own sons that Muhammad did not want him speaking at colleges and universities. Malcolm said that Muhammad was envious of his ability to effectively engage the “highly intelligent audiences”, where Muhammad himself felt unequipped to speak.
  18. Malcolm literally changed world opinions of racism in America during his visit to Africa. Malcolm visited many more countries than Egypt, as depicted in the film. He travelled to Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, etc. Malcolm was highly revered in numerous locations and was asked to speak abroad. He soon learned that the general consensus was that American racism was “under control” and constantly improving, as indicated by the American media. Malcolm dispelled that claim by sharing detailed accounts of segregation, hate crimes, a corrupt and unfair justice system and media manipulation, to many a shocked audience.
  19. Malcolm’s assassination. Malcolm stated that he had been marked for death within the subsequent five days and claimed to have the names of the five Black Muslims chosen to kill him. It is rumored that when Betty leaned over her husband’s body after the shooting, she removed a piece of paper from his coat pocket, naming the conspirators.
  20. The Ossie Davis-voiced eulogy at the end. Many found it to be a classic touch, having legendary actor/director/write/activist Ossie Davis recite the eulogy in the film’s final scenes. Ossie really did deliver that very same speech and during Malcolm X’s funeral in 1965.

And that’s it, my 20 points. Got any points you’d like to share? Leave them in the Comments section below.

I hope my trivia (or clarifications) has inspired you to check the movie out again and/or ultimately read the fascinating book. When you learn more about why he became the man he was and how he personally changed after his Pilgrimage to Mecca, hopefully you will see him as much more than the labels cast upon him (like “That Troublemaker”, playfully spoken during the “Brothers Brothers” skit on the sitcom “In Living Color”.).

Upon completion of The Dead Are Rising, I’ll see where my research takes me after that and possibly talk about it in a future post.

In the meantime, educate yourself and stop walking around spouting just the one phrase, “By Any Means Necessary” or “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on US!”

Malcolm Little aka Detroit Red aka Malcolm X aka El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz was much more than two famous quotes. Much more than the man in photograph, looking out of the window with military assault rifle in hand.

And his impact in America, throughout the world, though often unmentioned, can never be denied.

Remember these things the next time you purchase a ball cap with a large “X” on it.

Happy Birthday, Malcolm. We will remember you.

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