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'Brother Minister: The Martyrdom of Malcolm X'

By Alona Wartofsky
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 17, 1995


Jack Baxter
Not rated

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"Brother Minister: The Assassination of Malcolm X" does not advance the art of documentary filmmaking. Its production values are tacky, and at times it is confusing and hard to follow. Yet this film, which attempts to unravel the events that led to the black leader's shooting 30 years ago, is a riveting two hours; ultimately, it paints a deeply disturbing portrait of America.

Qubilah Shabazz's recent arrest for allegedly conspiring to avenge her father's murder attests to the fact that the death of Malcolm X has not faded into history. The film opens with television news footage of her mother, Betty Shabazz, implicating Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan in her husband's death. She then says with perfectly controlled anger: "I'd like to know what it is they claimed Malcolm did."

As has already been well documented elsewhere, what he did was transform himself from convicted criminal Malcolm Little into Malcolm X, heir apparent to Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammed. The events that led to Malcolm's expulsion from the Nation have also been documented before; "Brother Minister" presents them clearly and succinctly.

The film's missteps are few but egregious. The shooting at Harlem's Audubon Ballroom is re-created in slo-mo black-and-white footage that does little but reveal the tabloid TV background of director Jack Baxter, a former producer for "A Current Affair." (Baxter, for those who keep track of such things, is white; Jefri Aalmuhammed, credited as the film's co-writer and co-producer, is black.) The staged assassination's cheap drama is far more forgettable than the photograph we see of the actual Malcolm X, his chest riddled with bullets.

Others of the film's authentic images have similarly indelible impact: the New York Times banner headline "The Apostle of Hate Is Dead"; a photo of Malcolm X's firebombed home; footage of him and Elijah Muhammed before their rift. Excerpts from many FBI memos include an appalling one that refers to "temple-type low-class Negroes."

Still, it is the people interviewed in "Brother Minister" that are most compelling: There's Gene Roberts, an undercover New York City cop who became one of Malcolm X's bodyguards and 30 years later continues to struggle with his conscience; W. Deen Muhammad, who started the chain of events that led to Malcolm X's expulsion from the Nation when he told him in 1963 that his father, Elijah Muhammed, had impregnated six of his secretaries; Charles 37X Kenyatta, who speaks with awkward eloquence as he relates an incident in which he saved Malcolm X from an assassination attempt, only to be told by his friend that because he was carrying a gun he had "lost his faith."

Then there is Malcolm X himself, undeniably charismatic and, initially, bitter and unyielding. Yet the film also depicts a more conciliatory post-pilgrimage Malcolm X who, in the weeks before his death, was preparing to form a coalition with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Three black Muslims went to jail for Malcolm X's murder, but as with the John F. Kennedy assassination, conspiracy theories have raged over time. "I do not believe the jealous idiots within the Nation of Islam had the intellectual capacity to understand the depth of a Malcolm X," says one of the film's historians. "Their hands may have killed him, but the direction of their hands, the intent, came from outside."

That outside influence was, according to the film -- and to "Unraveling the Assassination of Malcolm X" author Baba Zak A. Kondo -- the FBI. That assertion is contradicted by "Brother Minister's" bombshell, though: footage from a 1993 speech by Farrakhan in which he seems to acknowledge the Nation's responsibility. "Did you teach Malcolm? . . . Did you clean up Malcolm? . . . Was Malcolm your traitor or ours?" he asks rhetorically. "And if we dealt with him like a nation deals with a traitor, what the hell business is it of yours?"

Whatever Malcolm X's killers wanted to achieve, his old friend Benjamin 2X Karim suggests at one point, they appear to have failed. "Look where he is now," Karim says, explaining that the martyred Malcolm X is a towering figure comparable to the Buddha. "So who won?"

"Brother Minister: The Assassination of Malcolm X" is not rated.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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