What Women Can Learn from Malcolm X

What Women Can Learn from Malcolm X

by Flo Kennedy and Irene Davall


It seemed a sure bet that “Malcolm X” would not be the favorite feminist film of 1992. For starters, with a “cast of thousands” it has only two prominent roles for women – neither of which, as written, could generate the enthusiastic response women had for the characters in “Thelma and Louise” or even “A League of Their Own.”

Only one, the part of Malcolm’s wife Betty Shabazz, comes off as more than woman-as-sycophant. The other female role is that of a conniving blonde who seduces Malcolm with bed and breakfast, then helps him rob wealthy homes, a career which rewards him, with a 10-year jail sentence.

Shabazz, on the other hand, is a tall, darkskinned woman, a trained nurse and a devoted Muslim. Shabazz married Malcolm, bore him six girls [including twins born after, Malcolm’s death] and held him in her arms as he died, assassinated, on the floor of the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. During his checkered career, Malcolm X had to overcome scores of seemingly impossible obstacles. The same is true of the movie which bears his name. The film was fraught with problems from the git-go.

For nearly two decades the idea for a biopic aboutMalcolm X simmered on Hollywood’s back burner to become, over time, one of Hollywood’s “most famous unproduced movies.” Wherever filmakers gathered, the conversation turned to “that g.d. movie.”

Who should produce it? Who should direct? Would it have public appeal? Should it be produced at all?

In 1967, Marvin Worth acquired the rights to The Autobiography of Malcolm X from Alex Haley and Malcolm’s widow, Shabazz. Worth had met “the man” on New York’s 52nd Street where Worth was managing jazz groups and clubs.

Malcolm, not yet 17, was selling grass, hustling, pimping – anything to make a buck – never dreaming that in a few years he would be a world-famous preacher, recruiting hundreds of new members to the Nation of Islam.

Nation of Islam members are not led to expect a life of ease and luxury, but are taught they must live by Muslim rules of “discipline, sacrifice, clean living, honesty and , chastity.”

At Fruit of lslam weekly meetings, men are taught judo, karate and military drill. That training helped Malcolm face down white policemen at the Harlem precinct. When word went out that a Temple member was brutally attacked by two white policemen with nightsticks and the wounded man jailed without medi cal help, it took only a half hour for 50 of the Temple’s men to line up in ranks formation outside the precinct. This scene is one of the most riveting in the three and-a-half hour film.

Watching those disciplined Black men silently facing the station house full of guntoting white cops, suddenly, to our eyes, another scene was superimposed on the screen: Congresswomen Barbara Boxer and Patricia Schroeder leading other Congresswomen across the Capi tol grounds and up the Senate steps, demanding a fair hearing of Anita Hill’s charges against Clarence Thomas. Pon der what might have happened that day had a thousand, or Jive thousand, femi nists marched up those steps behind the Congresswomen, prepared to stay on those steps until their demands were met by the all-male Senatorial panel and Senator Alan K. Simpson (R-WY) learned the true definition of sexual ha rassment. Women should see “Malcolm X” at least once, not only as entertainment, which it is, but as a blueprint for women to follow in our fight for equality. When Malcolm tells his audience how to become inde pendent by starting and patronizing only Black-owned businesses and boycotting those run by whites in the Black com munity, women should hear him saying “Patronize only women-owned and op erated businesses, (jirkot allmale-ownedbusi nesses in your community.”

Imagine what would happen if women refused to go to the movies until at least half of all movie franchises were owned by women. Smelling all that unsold pop corn and looking at all those empty seats night after night, industry moguls might cave in to women’s demands in a matter of months. Remember the Montgom ery bus company capitulation in 1955 – and reflect that that protest began through a woman, Rosa Parks. This local action inspired civil rights activists nationwide. But paying heed to other Muslim teach ings about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps means little when you have no boots. Women must study the dis proportionate number of jobs held by men, especiallyjobs paid for by city, state and federal taxes to which women are major contributors. We must unite and tell the City Fathers(!) “Women pay taxes too.” We must ask them: Why are most city buses driven by men? Why are street sweepers always men? If women can sweep kitchen floors for free, why not have them sweep streets for weekly paychecks? Why are the majority of minimum wage jobs held by females? Women serve coffee and do nuts at the local McDonald’s, but your dollars to their donuts the franchise is owned by a man and he doesn’t work for $5.00 an hour.

In a recent article in the New York Times, New York City Police Commis sioner Raymond Kelly announced “the percentage ofBlacks planning to take the department’s test this year has signifi cantly increased.” Nowhere in a long, self-congratulatory article about recruit ment techniques, does the white male Commissioner mention the word “women” nor does he tell Times readers how many women police are now on the payroll or how many have applied to take the next exam. Why don’t we form a delegation, march to his office and ask him these questions?

‘ ‘Malcolm X” continues to draw crowds and many people who have yet to see it say they intend to. “I hear good things about it,” is a favorite reply, and the movie has stimulated sales of the book on which it was based. Tlw Autobiography of Malcolm X, with the assistance of Alex Haley, published originally in 1965, has been reissued, zooming to popularity, appearing on the best seller list for months. The movie “Malcolm X” cost $38 million dollars to make, which may have made Warner Brothers shake in their custom-made boots, but Spike Lee, the Black Bard of Hollywood, lays it out this way: “It couldn’t be a good film, it had to be a great film. We only come to the plate one time, and we have to hit a home run.”

We women who see the film and adapt its teachings to solving our problems may find it easier than we expect to hit that winning run for equality.

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