Malcolm X: Controversy Around Assassination and Lee’s Portrayal

What was the true role of the FBI in Malcolm X’s assassination? And how did Lee portray his murder in the biographical film of Malcolm X?

When Lee’s film Malcolm X was first released there was some controversial reviews on his portrayal of Malcolm X’s assassination. People were upset that they believed Lee to portray the NOI as solely responsible for the assassination, believing that the few radical muslims that murdered X were not representative of the NOI. As well, this portrayal sends a message of black-on-black violence that is destructive imagery. Lee responds to these criticisms in the following article, addressing his understanding of the assassination and the role of the parties involved.

Spike Lee Defends ‘Malcolm X’ 

In this article, Lee explained that the NOI is a very structured organization similar to the military that is driven by a hierarchy of given orders. Thus, the muslims involved in the assassination were most likely directed or prompted by higher members of the NOI.

Lee also indicates that he believes the government had a role in Malcolm X’s assassination. Adding that at the very least, they knew about it and allowed it happen. This conclusion is most likely the most historically accurate and I believe Lee displays this interpretation he provided through his film. In a closer analysis of the ending sequence, one can see how Lee implicates both the NOI and the FBI. Below is the juxtaposition that Lee provides of the inside and outside aftermath of the shooting:

Lee’s portrayal of the aftermath inside the venue. Police slowly filter in to the crime scene.
Archival footage of aftermath outside of the venue

What Lee utilizes is the contrast between the slow, filtering in cops walking around the auditorium as Malcolm X lies on the ground shot. No one rushes over to check on him, no ambulance or discernible call for help is made; just a slow surveying acceptance of the crime scene as if they were arriving a day later. Then Lee cuts to archival footage of Malcolm X being escorted out of the building in a rush as if there was hope to save his fleeting life and great concern for his life. This contrast emphasizes the complacency of the law enforcement while they attempted to let the NOI take all the blame. In reality, law enforcement showed that Malcolm X’s livelihood was not a concern of theirs.

An excerpt from a New York Times Article:

Malcolm X, who became a patron saint of the black power movement and, long after his death, an American icon, knew his life was in danger when he took the stage at the Audubon Ballroom on Feb. 21, 1965. He had broken with the Nation of Islam, which had branded him an enemy and a traitor. A week earlier, his house had been firebombed. As he began to speak, a disturbance broke out in the audience, a smoke bomb went off, and gunmen opened fire.

Thomas Hagan, a member of the Nation of Islam from New Jersey who was then 22, was arrested at the ballroom that day. The police investigated the crime scene for four hours before the blood was mopped up and a planned dance began. (Dewan, 2011)

X’s murder was treated simply as a mess to clean up and to sweep under the rug. The assassination of one of the most influential American leaders of the civil rights movement was investigated for a total of four hours before they were satisfied. It begs the question, did they simply investigate the assassination as a formality and not to do their jobs built on the principle of justice?

Below are a link to the FBI files on Malcolm X organized in a format much more discernible than the FBI vault. I have included a slide show of files that have implicated the FBI in the complacency of their prevention and response to the assassination. The agency and local law enforcement were aware of the potential dangers and threats posed on X’s life, they also had constant surveillance of X. The agency wrote off these threats and dangers on Malcolm’s life as “publicity stunts.”

Malcolm X: FBI files

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The report on the actual assassination can be read in the link below. The report emphasizes two things: first, they have redacted so much information and additional pages (from this and all their files on X) that it suspiciously makes it difficult to discern a majority of the intelligence they possessed and secondly, there was no mention of any response to helping the victim (Malcolm X) after the shootings had occurred. The report only focused on the arrest of Thomas Haggan, while there is no mention of attempted assistance towards Malcolm or their awareness of the possible assassination.
In response to the critics, I believe Lee actually did portray the combination of both the NOI and the FBI as having roles in Malcolm’s death. If the juxtaposition of the film and the archival footage are taken into careful consideration of what this contrast implies, one can come to the conclusion that Lee was suggesting the law enforcement agencies were purposely apathetic in their protection of X even in their awareness of the danger that surrounded him.
This post is in collaboration with ARhode and is part of a two-part analysis of Malcolm X. 

Sources: DEWAN, By SHAILA. “Biography Revives Push to Reopen Malcolm X Case.” The New York Times. (July 23, 2011 Saturday ): 1216 words. LexisNexis Academic. Web. Date Accessed: 2016/05/14.

One thought on “Malcolm X: Controversy Around Assassination and Lee’s Portrayal”

  1. I appreciate posts like these that outlay deeper research into events that I wish I knew more about. I remember from school that this assassination was sort of characterized as a black-on-black crime (one black leader jealous of another had him killed). I agree with you in that Lee tried his best to put all the players on full display. However, I am not surprised that Lee was criticized for making it seem like a black-on-black crime; not because he did portray it as one but people often jump to that in any depiction of black violence. I’ve always found the notion to be ridiculous. In this case, I don’t think Lee did anything wrong. But that is the problem with ridiculous notions; anything can be see as evidence of it. The blame should not go on Lee. He didn’t begin it and you’ve proven that he didn’t try to perpetuate it.


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