Malcolm X was reviled and adored during his lifetime thanks to his views of Black nationalism and his “by any means necessary” approach to battle racial discrimination. Following his assassination, the civil rights advocate’s popularity was revived by hip-hop artists in the late 1980s and early ’90s, and his image began appearing on clothing, college dorm posters and eventually in a Spike Lee 1992 biopic.
Now a Smithsonian Channel documentary is examining the life of Malcolm X through rare footage from his speeches and media interviews to let the slain leader speak to a new generation using his own words.
“The Lost Tapes: Malcolm X,” scheduled to premiere at 8 p.m. EST Monday, follows the advocate’s changing philosophy from a Nation of Islam Black separatist to a figure seeking to build multiethnic coalitions during the tumultuous 1960s civil rights era. But it also contains never-before-seen footage of the outspoken advocate at rallies with Nation of Islam leader and eventual foe, Elijah Muhammad.
Like other pieces in “The Lost Tapes” series, which is in its second season, the documentary uses only images and video clips from the time period and doesn’t insert contemporary voices or scholars to interpret what the audience sees. Only sentences are added to images to give background information.
Malcolm X, who later changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz following his pilgrimage to Mecca, came to national prominence in the late 1950s as the leader of the Nation of Islam’s Temple Number 7 in Harlem, N.Y.
He often was critical of civil rights leaders such as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. for practicing nonviolent resistance to segregation and called them “traitors” and “chumps.” But he later broke with Elijah Muhammad over disagreements about speaking out on police violence, Pres. John F. Kennedy’s assassination and news that Muhammad had fathered children from teen followers.
Producer Tom Jennings put together the project with the idea of making viewers feel they had been transported through a time machine to see events unfold as they happened.
“The audience is waiting for the narrator to show up and save them,” Jennings said. “But the footage tells the story alone. This forum is very rewarding.”
For example, “The Lost Tapes” shows footage from a July 1959 television documentary called “The Hate That Hate Produced” which introduced Malcolm X and the Chicago-based Nation of Islam to a wider audience. “They have their own parochial schools,” famed journalist Mike Wallace reports at the time on a documentary that aired on WNTA-TV in New York, “where Muslim children are told to hate the White man.”
A young Wallace then shows images of Malcolm X and speaks about his conversion to Islam after spending time in prison.
Later in “The Lost Tapes,” the documentary reveals that boxing champ Muhammad Ali ended his friendship with Malcolm X in exchange for his name change granted by Elijah Muhammad — a coveted reward by Nation of Islam followers. The documentary also has a radio interview where Malcolm X discusses attending the 1963 March on Washington.
He is shown speaking at events in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
Ilyasah Shabazz, the civil rights leader’s third daughter, said the documentary puts her father in the context of his time and shows him reacting to the injustices he saw.
Then, the documentary came to the assassination where radio reporters and images of the event recreate the chaos and sadness.
“The ending of the documentary … I was reduced to smithereens,” Shabazz said. “To see my father, a young man …for me, it was very dynamic.”