This month, Malcolm X has been returned to the mainstream media discourse. Simultaneous with the 55th commemoration of the freedom fighter’s murder by a COINTEL-PRO operation administered by the FBI and CIA via proxies in the Nation of Islam, Netflix has premiered a controversial and problematic new documentary miniseries, Who Killed Malcolm X? (dirs. Phil Bertelsen and Rachel Dretzin), that is becoming a major topic of conversation.
With this in mind, I wanted to share a paper I authored last year about how James Baldwin portrayed Malcolm X in his writings. It further examines the deployment of Malcolm as a literary construct by multimedia efforts, how Malcolm’s politics shaped Baldwin’s own praxis, and how much of that praxis has been reflected in recent popular films such as I Am Not Your Negro and If Beale Street Could Talk. It is my argument that, in the past 50 years, there has been a long-term neoliberalization of Malcolm’s politics that have transformed him from a revolutionary Black nationalist into a mild civil libertarian.
Baldwin’s voice is an important contributor for a number of reasons. Besides undermining this gentrification of Malcolm’s politics, Baldwin’s friendship with him belies posthumous accusations of the revolutionary as an ultra-macho homophobe.