Jack Baxter the man behind "Brother Minister," is white, in the way that Irish guys from the Bronx are white, which is to say that he calls money "dough" and has a little green cloverleaf on his lapel. Five years ago, just before he began his documentary on the assassination of Malcolm X, he did not know who Malcolm X was. He was working as the head of security in a homeless shelter in New York and doing a project that never went anywhere with the guy who released the optically enhanced version of the Zapruder film.

But then he met a former Malcolm X bodyguard, who was right there on the stage in Harlem when Malcolm was gunned down 30 years ago. He read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." On the skimpiest of budgets, he began to make a movie, a home video really, about a world he only dimly understood. And now, here he is, on the brink of "Brother Minister's" national release, in the midst of a full-scale national shouting match. Donahue is next week. He's been on more radio and TV shows than he can count. He's been threatened "so many times I'm getting tired of it." The Nation of Islam thinks he's part of an "unholy alliance." He has, quite by accident, achieved a certain notoriety, which is why, tall and gray-haired, leaning forward on a couch in midtown Manhattan's Parker Meridien Hotel, he seems keyed-up, jumpy, as if he can't believe he's actually here.

"Look," he says, eyeballing the room, an edge to his voice. "Sitting over there in the corner. Isaac Hayes."

What has taken Baxter so high is a single, hitherto unseen one-minute clip 90 minutes into "Brother Minister" -- a sensational grainy videotape of Louis Farrakhan addressing a private Nation of Islam meeting two years ago in Chicago. Farrakhan's subject is Malcolm X, his onetime mentor-turned-antagonist, who angrily split from the Nation and its founder Elijah Muhammad just before he was assassinated in a Harlem dance hall, allegedly by three Nation of Islam members.

"I loved Elijah Muhammad enough that if you attacked him, I would kill you," Farrakhan says in the segment, his hand knifing the air. "Yesterday. Today. And tomorrow. And I'm not a killer, and neither are you. But if someone attacked what you loved, each one of you in here would become a killer instantaneously. Am I lying? . . . We don't give a damn about no white man law when you attack what we love."

The camera pans the crowd as it gives him a standing ovation. Farrakhan is holding the lectern, and with each exclamation at the end of each dramatic sentence, he executes a half-turn to his right.

"And frankly, it ain't none of your business," he continues, addressing the white world outside. "Did you teach Malcolm? 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 traitors, what the hell business is it of yours?"

"Brother Minister" does not come out and accuse Farrakhan of ordering the killing of Malcolm X. It does not have to. When Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X's widow, was shown the segment on a television show in New York a year ago, she said that "everybody talked about" Farrakhan's involvement in Malcolm X's death and that within the Nation of Islam his assassination was considered a "badge of honor." The tabloids picked up her comments and had a field day. The Nation of Islam filed a $4.4 billion defamation suit against the New York Post.

Then, the day after the film's January premiere in Minneapolis and New York City, the FBI announced the indictment of Malcolm X's daughter, Qubilah Shabazz -- who at the age of 4 watched her father being gunned down on the Audubon Ballroom stage -- for hiring an assassin for a revenge hit on Farrakhan. The timing, even Baxter admits, was too perfect. The day of her indictment, he says, she went to see "Brother Minister." In the space of 24 hours, "Brother Minister" had gone from movie to news event to the stuff of conspiracy.

"The question is, just who is Jack Baxter? Where does he get his money? What is his portfolio?" asks Conrad Muhammad, spokesman for Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. "I saw Brother Minister' on Wednesday night and Thursday Qubilah Shabazz was arrested for threatening the life of the honorable Minister Farrakhan. It seems to me that there was a plan to premiere the movie in New York City, to draw a crowd, to get people upset, the next morning arrest Qubilah Shabazz, and that this would be enough to set off a schism in the black community. The timing was just too coincidental."

It is this, perhaps, that puts Baxter a little bit on edge, the knowledge that he has touched something raw in the black community, dislodged a piece of history that might have been better left untouched.

"Sometimes I think, should we walk away from this," he says. "Should we walk away next week?"

At this, Baxter looks up around the room, the Parker Meridien dining room, and utters a long oath.

"See that guy over there," he says, motioning toward a young black man in a baseball cap sitting in the far corner. "He's a member of the Nation of Islam. I tried to shake him."

He lowers his voice.

"That's why I didn't want to come here. . . . That little {expletive} tried to shake me down two weeks ago. . . . He goes to the Apollo and tries to represent us and say that if we don't work with him, he'll take out a full page ad in Final Call {the Nation of Islam newspaper} saying we're trying to stop black people from seeing Brother Minister.' "

Baxter is red in the face now. He is staring down at the tablecloth, avoiding the gaze of the man in the corner. He reaches for his walking stick, as if to go and give the man a thrashing, and then pulls his hand back.

"I see him the other day coming towards me on the street. He grabs me by the arm. I elbow him in the chest. I say get your {expletive} hands off me. Now he's in here today. Look at him! He's talking to Isaac Hayes!"

Baxter makes a motion to get up out of his seat.

"Do you understand? Him threatening to put my name in Final Call is like putting a bull's-eye on my face!" An Allegory About Religion?

There was a time, in the beginning, when Jack Baxter thought that because he was white he couldn't make "Brother Minister."

"All I wanted to be was the writer, because I figured I'm a white guy, I can't do this by myself. I tried to get an African American to direct it, but nobody would touch it. Then I realized that this wasn't about race. It was about religion, and if anyone could tell the story of a true believer I could, because I was a true believer."

Baxter was a true believer because in 1970, at the age of 18, he left the Bronx and set out across the country, ending up with a band of "Jesus freaks" on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. He would stay with them for seven years, inside a tight-knit movement led by a messianic preacher. Only when things went sour did he manage, painfully, to break away. His experience, he maintains, was the Christian equivalent of the Nation of Islam.

The Muslims he came to know at the homeless shelter "reminded me of the guys I was with," he says. "We were the same, aside from the fact that I believed in God and they believed in Muhammad." Baxter saw the same ambiguity in the Nation, the movement that lifted Malcolm X out of the gutter but then later expelled him, that he saw in his own experience.

"I was saved by an organization that most people would call a dangerous religious cult. If I hadn't run into the Jesus freaks on Hollywood Boulevard, I know I'd be dead. When you're with people who have such miracles in their lives, do you claim it was all bad because things go awry? It's just like the Nation of Islam. There are guys in there who were killers, jailbirds like Malcolm X. But it saved them."

It is this perspective, Baxter's appreciation of the ambiguity of the Nation, that gives "Brother Minister" its shape. The movie does not preach. The story is told without elaboration. The camera moves back and forth among a wide range of Malcolm X's friends, contemporaries and enemies, presenting detailed and sometimes conflicting versions of his final days. What unfolds is a complex picture of the climate of hostility that grew between Malcolm X and his former compatriots in the Nation of Islam, how that hostility was fanned by the FBI, and how those who fought with Malcolm X live with that history today.

If you think of Alex Haley's "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" as part one of the Malcolm X trilogy, bringing his story up to the point of his break with the Nation of Islam, and Spike Lee's hagiographic "Malcolm X" as part two, with its gripping depiction of his assassination, "Brother Minister" is perhaps properly part three, an attempt to answer the question of why he died.

" Brother Minister,' " Baxter says, is an "allegory not about race but religion. The main story is as old as time, the consequences of breaking from a messiah. I see the same stories in the Bible. I mean, who really killed Jesus of Nazareth?"

Of course, if "Brother Minister" was only religious allegory, there would be no controversy. But the film is also, in a much more specific way, about the tangled relationship between Louis Farrakhan and Malcolm X, two friends and fellow ministers in the Nation of Islam who fell apart over Malcolm's split from the movement in 1964.

"Farrakhan, down in his heart, hoped to replace Malcolm," said John Henry Clarke, a retired history professor at Hunter College who is quoted extensively in the film. "But the ingredient is not there, and it's not going to be there. The charisma is not there, and it's not going to be there. He is envious of a dead man, a man who from the grave is telling you I dare you to be like me. . . . He has guilt and he has frustration."

Repeatedly, over the last few months of his life, as he moved towards the nonviolent, racially inclusive teachings of traditional Islam, Malcolm X said that he was a marked man, that the Nation of Islam would seek to punish him. "Brother Minister" asks what role Farrakhan played in all of this. And through the ruminations of Malcolm's friends, it tries to get at the question of how much Farrakhan is still haunted by the death of the man who was once his compatriot.

Were the real killers of Malcolm X in fact from the Nation of Islam's Newark Mosque, the film asks? And if so, why was Louis Farrakhan in the Newark Mosque on the day of Malcolm X's assassination?

This suggestion, coupled with the striking clip of Farrakhan's speech two years ago, is what has so incensed the Nation.

"Why now? Why didn't they say this in the 1960s and the 1970s?" asks Conrad Muhammad. "It's because Minister Farrakhan is the most popular leader in the black community. . . . They know this is a sore spot in the history of the Nation of Islam. They keep raising this issue in the public to stop the rise and the effectiveness of the Honorable Louis Farrakhan."

The clip, Conrad Muhammad says, although accurate "in terms of the words," was wrenched out of context from a three-hour speech. "He was saying that if the Nation dealt with Malcolm, how is that different from how other nations deal with traitors."

Baxter, for his part, says he repeatedly approached Farrakhan to have him tell his side of the story but was rebuffed. In addition, he claims, he left far more damaging material about the Nation of Islam leader out of his film, such as the story he heard about Farrakhan going to James Baldwin's house soon after Malcolm was killed.

"He was asked by this person, my source: Louis, what have you done?' And he broke down and said, I've betrayed the only man I've ever loved.' "

"If we showed all of it," Baxter said, "somebody would take his {Farrakhan's} head off. . . . He'd be looking for his head right now."

Baxter's source for a lot of this information -- and the tape of Farrakhan's speech -- is a man named Jefri Aalmuhammed, who is listed along with Baxter as co-writer and co-producer of the film even though the two men met only after "Brother Minister" was nearly completed.

Aalmuhammed's intent, Baxter says, was "to bring out the fact that there is a difference between orthodox Islam and the practices of the Nation of Islam." He brought Baxter the tape of Farrakhan "to show, to illustrate the attitude that took Malcolm X out."

But who is Jefri Aalmuhammed?

Baxter says he doesn't know, only that he bears a striking resemblance to Farrakhan himself and when the two men met a conference in Chicago, they hugged like long-lost brothers.

"We don't know who he is," says Baxter, leaning forward. "There are rumors which he hasn't confirmed or denied. There are rumors that he is a kin of Farrakhan. I have no idea where he lives. He speaks seven languages. He calls me from Japan. He calls me from Egypt. I've never had a phone number for him. He is the most mysterious guy I've ever met."

Baxter begins to talk about Gene Roberts, the former New York City undercover cop and bodyguard of Malcolm X who first turned him on to the story. Roberts is the man who tried to revive Malcolm X as he lay dying on the stage of the Audubon Ballroom, and who has also been an object of suspicion in Malcolm X's death. But Baxter thinks Roberts has gotten a bum rap.

"In Spike Lee's movie, if you slow down the footage as Malcolm is shot, and you have to slow it down because it's not visible to the naked eye, Spike has Brother Gene put a pistol in his pocket as he stands over Malcolm's body."

Spike Lee does, in fact, have Brother Gene put something in his pocket as he pulls away from Malcolm X's dead body. But if you slow down the videotape, and if you look closely, it doesn't much look like a gun at all. It looks like a pair of glasses.

But tell that to Jack Baxter, leaning forward again, his voice intense.

"What's Spike trying to say? Gene killed him?" CAPTION: A scene from "Brother Minister: The Assassination of Malcom X." At left, Malcolm X; at far right is Louis Farrakhan. CAPTION: The Nation of Islam calls Jack Baxter, cretor of "brother Minister," part of an "unholy alliance."