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Learn the true story behind The Return of the King
Our movie today begins with someone introducing Minister Malcolm X. We can’t see what’s happening because this is just audio going on behind the credits, but we can hear a crowd cheering as he’s introduced.
Then, we hear Denzel Washington’s version of Malcolm X narrating a speech. He begins by saying, “Brothers and sisters, I’m here to tell you that I charge the White Man. I charge the White Man with being the greatest murderer on Earth.”
As the speech audio continues, the credits continue over an American flag for a brief time. Then, the camera cuts to some very grainy and bouncy footage. The credits continue this way. Cutting back and forth between the U.S. flag, which slowly starts burning into the letter “X”, and the grainy footage.
And it’s some disturbing footage. We see a man on his knees in the foreground. There’s a car in the background with the driver’s side door open. It’s hard to see exactly how many men there are in the footage, but we can see at least three or four men standing around the man on the ground.
This is when it gets disturbing as we realize what’s happening. The man on his knees on the ground is being beaten by the other men standing around him.
It’s tough to watch, but it sets a strong tone for the movie up front. Denzel’s voiceover as Malcolm X continues as the footage does.
The speech we hear Denzel Washington’s version of Malcolm X giving wasn’t really a speech that the real Malcolm X ever gave. Although it’s worth pointing out that it does have bits and pieces from a speech he did give called “The Ballot or the Bullet”, but overall it’s been changed around for the movie into what some reviewers have called the, “I have a nightmare” speech. That’s based on what Denzel’s version of Malcolm X says at the end, “We don’t see any American dream. We’ve experienced only the American nightmare.”
This is the filmmakers playing off Martin Luther King, Jr’s very real speech called, “I have a dream.” That speech was given on August 23rd, 1963—and it called for an end to racism in the U.S. by way of civil and economic rights.
So, it’s a clever play on Dr. King’s speech, even if the exact speech we hear Denzel Washington’s voiceover giving isn’t a real one that Malcolm X gave.
As for the disturbing footage, though…unfortunately, that is real.
The man on his knees in that footage is Rodney King. The men standing around him, beating him, are members of the Los Angeles Police Department. This happened on March 3rd, 1991—just before the movie was released—when Rodney King and two of his friends were stopped by the police for speeding.
Many of the details of the incident didn’t come out until later, but as a general overview, the three friends had been drinking. So, when the cops tried to pull them over, Rodney as the driver tried to outrun the police—something Rodney King admitted to later. The chase only lasted about eight miles, or about 13 kilometers, before the police had Rodney’s car cornered and it came to an end.
Later, the officers who responded would say they thought Rodney King was going for a gun when he moved. But Rodney King didn’t have any weapons. The officers ordered him to the ground at gunpoint. Four officers then approached him, in anticipation of handcuffing him. But Rodney resisted. He stood up, which caused two of the officers fall off his back.
Around here is when Rodney King was Tasered. If you look closely in the movie, you can see the Taser wire from an officer on the left side of the footage going to Rodney. This is also roughly the point that the footage began—this footage was shot by a man named George Holliday, who lived in a nearby apartment where he shot it from.
After Rodney King was Tasered, this is when the officers started beating him with their batons. At one point, Rodney rose to his feet and charged forward—although it’s never been determined if he was charging at one of the officers, or if he was trying to escape. Regardless, this opened up a new flurry of beatings. In all, Rodney King was struck 33 times with batons and another six kicks from the police officers.
It wasn’t until two days later that George Holliday tried to get someone at the LAPD to look at the footage of the incident he’d shot. No one was interested. So, instead, he took it to a local TV station. That’s where it blew up, causing an understandable outrage with how the police treated Rodney King.
Even though the movie doesn’t show it, on April 29th, 1992, the police officers on the tape who beat Rodney were acquitted by a jury. The charges were dropped.
Rioting began hours later. The riots continued for the rest of April and into May. Today, we refer to them as the 1992 Los Angeles Riots that saw the LAPD call for help from the tens of thousands of soldiers and officials from California National Guard, the FBI, the U.S. Marshal Service, the DEA, ATF, and even two divisions of the U.S. military being brought to Los Angeles. By the time it was done, over 12,000 arrests were made. Over 2,000 people were injured, and 63 people lost their lives.
Despite an end to the riots, as far as many people were concerned, the issue of racist police brutality was left unresolved.
Going back to the movie, after that introduction, we’re sent back in time. All the movie gives us as far as context as we see a street sign for the Dudley Street Station is some text saying we’re in Boston during “The War Years.”
The camera follows Spike Lee’s character, yes in addition to writing and directing, Spike Lee also played the character of Shorty. He walks over to a barbershop where we see Denzel Washington’s version of Malcolm X for the first time.
Although, in the movie, he’s not Malcolm X yet—he’s Malcolm Little.
After a brief, comical bit in the barbershop, Denzel’s voiceover explains Malcolm’s childhood. According to the movie, a party of Klansmen surrounded their house in Omaha, Nebraska. They yelled for his father, who we hear them call Earl Little, to come out of the house.
We see Malcolm’s mother, who is pregnant, go out and tell the Klansmen that Earl isn’t home—he’s in Milwaukee, preaching. The Klansmen then proceed to break all the windows in the house, terrifying Malcolm’s mother and the three little children we see inside.
Denzel Washington’s narration continues to explain that his father followed Marcus Garvey, a man who preached that black Americans couldn’t find freedom, independence and self-respect in the United States. Instead, he preached black men should return to Africa.
As for his mother, Denzel’s version of Malcolm explains that she was fair-skinned because her mother was raped by a white man. She hated her complexion and, according to the movie, she married Malcolm’s father in part because he was so black.
While the events we see in the movie are obviously dramatized, the basic gist of all that is true. But, as you can guess, there’s more to the story.
The man we know today as Malcolm X was born to Earl and Louise Little on May 19th, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. Only a decade earlier had seen the start of what we now refer to as the 2nd Klan, a reorganization of the Ku Klux Klan after it had died away post-Civil War in 1871.
This resurgence of the racist organization saw an estimated 3 to 6 million people being a part of the KKK, with most historians guessing that the highest numbers peaked the year Malcolm was born, in 1925.
The movie is correct in showing that Earl Little was a preacher—a Baptist minister, actually.
Reverend Earl Little was, like the movie shows, harassed by the local KKK members. A big part of this was probably because Earl was outspoken for black rights. That other name the movie mentions, Marcus Garvey, was a real person. He founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League in 1914 while Marcus was living in Jamaica.
Two years later, Marcus moved to the United States—Harlem, in New York—and his beliefs started to gain a following.
The basic idea for that organization was racial pride and economic self-sufficiency. Marcus also believed, like the movie suggests, that neither one of those things could happen in the United States. So, he suggested black men and women move to Africa to start an independent nation.
The movie doesn’t mention this, but even though a lot of people believed in Marcus Garvey’s vision, they didn’t like that he wanted to be the president of that new nation himself. For this reason, Marcus and the NAACP had an ongoing feud soon after his arrival in the U.S.
However, Earl and Louise Little were among the people who believed in Marcus’s vision. In fact, Earl was the local leader of the Marcus’s UNIA organization.
So, that’s probably why the members of the KKK painted a target on the Little family. And just like the movie shows, while Reverend Little was preaching in Milwaukee, a group of KKK men on horseback showed up at their home. Louise was pregnant with Malcolm, and when she stood up to the men so they could see she was pregnant, they responded pretty much the same way the movie shows—by breaking all the windows in their house using their rifles.
What the movie doesn’t show was that after Earl returned home, he was furious. Of course he was. Who wouldn’t be?
Malcolm would later recall his father wasn’t afraid of the KKK, so he’s not sure why they moved—but they did. They decided to wait until Louise had the baby, though.
And as we already learned, Malcolm was born on May 19th, 1925. In early 1926, the Little family moved to Milwaukee. Then, soon after, they moved to Lansing, Michigan.
This is where most of Malcolm’s childhood was spent. Although moving further north didn’t stop the racist threats. In 1929, the Little’s home was burned down. Officially, there’s never been an explanation as to who was behind it, but Earl Little was sure it was the Black Legions—another racist white supremacist group a lot like the KKK—who had been harassing the family ever since they moved to Lansing.
Then, things got worse.
Again, the official story differs from what most close to the incident believe. This time, the official record reflects that Earl Little died in an accident. Other stories surrounding the incident said that Earl was beaten and forced to lie down on the streetcar track until he was run over by the car.
Not to get too far ahead of where we are in the movie’s timeline, but we see flashbacks of this later on in the film.
Earl’s body was nearly cut in half, his head was smashed in…Earl Little died in 1931 when little Malcolm was only six years old.
As you can imagine, all of this had an incredible impact on Malcolm while he was growing up. He stayed in Michigan until, while in junior high, he moved in with his half-sister in Boston.
The movie doesn’t really mention what year it is when we see Malcolm Little in Boston, only that it’s “The War Years” …a reference to World War II. We know from history, though, that he lived there for about ten years starting in 1939, so throughout the entire time the United States was involved in the war.
But that’s getting ahead of our story.
So, let’s hop back—oh! Before we do that, I think it’s worth pointing out that Spike Lee’s character, Shorty, was a real person. I could never find out what his real name was because everyone just called him “Shorty”—but, he befriended Malcolm in Boston because Shorty was also from Lansing, Michigan.
Now let’s hop back into the movie’s timeline where the next major plot point we see happens in 1944 when Malcolm and Shorty are hanging out together. This happens in a club where we see Shorty and Malcolm dancing with a couple girls.
Malcolm’s girlfriend, Laura, who’s played by Theresa Randle in the movie, goes to freshen up after a big dance. While she’s doing that, Malcolm notices Sophia from across the room. She’s played by Kate Vernon in the movie.
Later that evening, Malcolm walks Laura home and she’s pretty cold. Understandably, for sure. As he’s saying goodnight, she suggests that he’s just going to go see Sophia. He denies this, saying he’ll call her—Laura—in the morning. Then Laura says something to the effect of, “What’s the point? I’m not white and I don’t put out.”
The basic plot here is true. Although, the real woman’s name wasn’t Sophia. That’s the name Malcolm X gave her in his autobiography as a fake name to tell the story.
But, as the story goes, after Laura went home, Malcolm rushed back to go for a drive with Sophia. They didn’t drive for long, though. Before long, just like we see in the movie, the car is pulled off to the side of the road and shut off and…well, I think we know what happened next.
Malcolm wasn’t proud of this. As he explained in his autobiography, to be a black man dating a white woman was a sort of status symbol. For the next few months, Malcolm and Sophia became a thing.
Heading back to the movie, after hooking up with Sophia, Malcolm travels to Harlem thanks to his job at a railroad company. While there, he’s in a bar one evening when there’s an altercation that sees Malcolm smashing a bottle over another man’s face after he disrespects Malcolm’s mother. After this, Malcolm meets a man by the name of West Indian Archie.
He’s played by Delroy Lindo in the movie. Speaking of which, the movie clarifies pretty quickly that Archie’s nickname—West Indian Archie—isn’t because Archie is from India, but rather that he’s from the West Indies. This is something Malcolm’s familiar with. Even though he’s not been there himself, his mother was from Grenada.
During their conversation, Malcolm impresses Archie and vice versa. When Malcolm asks how he can get a hold of Archie, he reaches for pencil and paper. Archie shakes it off. No, don’t write anything down. Pointing to his head, Archie says you need to file everything up here—like I do. If the man doesn’t have any paper, they can’t prove anything.
Malcolm starts working for Archie, running numbers in a gambling scheme.
Then, one evening, Malcolm, Sophia, and Archie are doing cocaine when Malcolm decides to place a bet with Archie. Later—we don’t really know how much later—Malcolm is at the bar with Archie and Sophia when Malcolm says he’s thinkin’ about his money.
“What?” Archie asks.
Malcolm says his number hit…you owe me six big ones!
Archie laughs, you didn’t have 821.
Then the mood grows cold. Malcolm says he’ll drop it, but insists Archie’s slipping. Archie, obviously upset, drops six 100-dollar bills on the table before he gets up and leaves.
There’s some truth to that, but there’s more to the story. In the movie, it seems like Malcolm goes straight from working on the railroad to working for Archie.
That’s not really how it happened.
What happened was that while Malcolm worked for the railroad, he liked to go to some poker games that would take place at Grand Central Station. One time, cops busted the game while Malcolm was there.
No one was arrested, but the run-in with the cops at the station was enough for Malcolm to lose his job at the railroad.
Oh, and even though Malcolm was armed with a pistol, the cops didn’t find it because he hid it in the small of his back. The cops didn’t think to look there. In the movie, Archie is the one who tells Malcolm to do this, but in truth Malcolm did this of his own accord.
After this, Malcolm did what he could to make a living on the streets of Harlem. Primarily this meant robberies and a string of drug use that helped him stay cool during those robberies.
Only after this was when Malcolm met up with Archie. The movie is correct in showing that Archie ran the numbers game, and Malcolm started running those numbers for him.
What the movie doesn’t do is explain what the numbers game is…so, real quick, it’s basically a lottery. It was illegal, as you can probably guess, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t extremely popular—especially with working class Americans around the nation.
The basic idea was that each day there was a new number. You placed a bet on what that number would be, very much like the lottery today.
There’d be three levels involved. The banker, who held the bets and the tally of who had what bets. Then there’s the runner, which was the middle-man between you and the banker—they tell the banker what your bet was. And then there’s you, the person betting by giving the runner what number you think will win.
Then, when that day’s number is picked, if you picked the right number you win. The runner would give you your winnings from the banker.
How did they determine the day’s number? Well, that varied depending on the city you were in. One of the more common ways was to pick the last digit in a series of numbers. For example, let’s say the New York Stock Exchange traded 13,151 stocks one day. Well, before that day the game would basically determine that the winning number would be the last three—so in that example, “151.”
Or maybe it’d be numbers from different sources, so the last number of the NYSE trades, the first number of the market cap at closing and the second number from the Ford stock…those are just random examples.
So, if there’s 13,151 stocks traded, the last number is 1. If the market cap is, let’s say, $959,213, the first number would be 9. And if Ford’s stock closed at $5.21, the number would be 2.
So, 192 would be that day’s number. Of course, that’s just an example with much smaller numbers to simplify that example, haha!
Sometimes it’d be numbers from the New York Stock Exchange. Sometimes it’d be numbers from race tracks. The source of the numbers would vary, but the idea was that it’d hopefully be something random—at least, that’s what gave people the idea that it was a fair bet.
This is what Malcolm got involved in during his days in Harlem gambling and robbing. But, he didn’t run into Archie because of an altercation in a bar like we see in a movie. Instead, Malcolm had a different runner he’d give his numbers to, but then after a bad streak he decided to change his runner.
That’s when he found Archie, who was known for being a great runner due to his photographic memory.
Just like the movie shows, Archie never wrote those numbers down—that’s what helped him move up the ladder in the game until he was practically running it in Harlem.
Because of his popularity, a lot of people wanted to work with Archie. Not everyone could, though. Malcolm did, and that helped Malcolm’s reputation.
The movie doesn’t give any sort of indication for timing, but it was in 1945 when Malcolm’s relationship with Archie went sour. And it was, like the movie shows, because of a bet. But it didn’t go down like the movie shows.
Even though Malcolm placed his own bets with Archie, he’d also started working with him as a runner. Sometimes, Malcolm’s own bets would hit. Sometimes they didn’t.
One day, Malcolm collected on a bet he’d made—$300 winnings for a 50-cent bet. Not bad.
In 1945, $300 would be about the same as $4,200 today.
As he always did, Archie paid Malcolm without any question. That evening, Malcolm went to the bar with a pretty girl on his arm and money burning a hole in his pocket.
The next day, Malcolm was awoken by an angry Archie banging on his door. It’d seem that after giving Malcolm the money, Archie had gone back to the banker as he always did. That was the only time Archie ever wrote down the numbers, when he gave them to the banker.
At that point, Archie was certain Malcolm had bet on a different number. That’d mean Malcolm didn’t win after all. But Archie had paid him the $300 out of his own pocket, trusting Malcolm.
Have you ever been so sure of something at the time, but as soon as someone casts doubt on it you start to doubt it yourself?
That’s sort of what happened here.
In the movie, the number is 821, but there’s nothing I could find to let us know if that was the number or not. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, where both sides were so sure…right up until the other party cast doubt on it.
But the number of the day and the number Malcolm bet is really neither here nor there…the result was pretty much the same as the movie: Malcolm said he bet a number that won. Archie said Malcolm bet a different number.
So, when Archie barged into Malcolm’s room the next day, he wanted the $300 back. Except Malcolm had been spending the money the night before…so, he didn’t have it all.
Archie left in a rage, telling Malcolm he had until noon the next day.
It wasn’t about the money. Even though Malcolm hadn’t spent all of the money that night, their relationship was one that saw thousands of dollars exchanging hands—it was a matter of trust.
That trust was broken.
Malcolm had a choice: He could stick around and face Archie or he could run—leave town and never come back.
The next day when Archie found Malcolm again to get the rest of his money, it was a showdown at gunpoint. Malcolm nearly tried to reach for his own gun and catch Archie off-guard until…well, until Archie called him on it.
Archie knew what Malcolm was going to try to do, so he reminded Malcolm that he was young. Archie, on the other hand, was nearly 60 years old and he’d spent time in Sing Sing—one of the oldest prisons in the U.S. that’s still in operation as of this recording.
Archie’s point was clear: If Malcolm killed Archie, he’d ruin his own life more than he’d ruin Archie’s. As you can probably guess, neither Archie or Malcolm pulled the trigger that day.
But the trust that had been lost was never regained, so their working relationship was over.
Going back to the movie, after the falling out with Archie, Malcolm goes back to Boston. While he’s there, he reconnects with Spike Lee’s character, Shorty.
Their lifestyle doesn’t improve much, though, and both Malcolm and Shorty start pulling small-time robberies. That ends, though, when we see the police raid their apartment and arrest Shorty and Malcolm along with Sophia and Shorty’s girlfriend, a woman named Peg.
The next scene we see is in a courtroom where we see the judge sentence Sophia and Peg to two years in a women’s reformatory. They were first-time offenders, so they got off easy.
But then, the movie points out that Shorty and Malcolm were also first-time offenders, and yet the judge charges them with 14 different robbery charges, each of them for eight to 10 years at the Charlestown State Prison, to be served concurrently—at the same time.
The implication here is clear—Sophia and Peg are white women while Shorty and Malcolm are black men. The latter got a heavier sentence from a judge who seemed to base this decision on the color of their skin.
Denzel’s voiceover tells is this is February of 1946 when the sentence was thrown-down.
Before we continue, though, I think it’s worth pointing out the little cameo here. The racist judge is being played by a man named William Kuntsler. If you’re not familiar with who he was, Kuntsler made a name for himself as a lawyer working civil rights cases in the late 1950s and ‘60s as he defended countless men and women who had been subjected to prejudice by the American judicial system.
So, basically, exactly like what we see happening in the movie here.
Kuntsler never served as lawyer for the real Malcolm X, though, but he did make a mark on civil rights in the United States, and even served as director of the ACLU between 1964 and 1977.
That aside, though, the movie is correct in showing that Malcolm Little was arrested and sent to Charlestown State Prison. Although, the burglaries didn’t happen with just one accomplice like the movie implies. Malcolm had four accomplices, including Shorty.
The way we saw Malcolm and Shorty get arrested as the only two in the room is also incorrect. They weren’t arrested at the same time or in the same place. But they were both arrested.
As for the other two accomplices, it’d seem one of the accomplices was never charged—the cops never knew about him—while another one, a man named Rudy, managed to get away.
And it was, just like the movie shows, in February of 1946 when Malcolm started serving an eight to 10-year sentence for his crimes. As for the women, the movie is also correct that they got less time. And in truth, there was a lot more racism throughout the experience that the movie doesn’t show. Everyone from court clerks to bailiffs to court-appointed lawyers seemed to hone in on the white women arrested with black men.
The fact that they were all charged with the same crimes didn’t seem to matter as much. The women got one to five years at the Women’s Reformatory in Framingham, Massachusetts while Malcolm and Shorty got eight to 10 years at Charlestown State Prison in Boston, Massachusetts.
Speaking of the movie, heading back into its timeline, we find Denzel Washington’s version of Malcolm in prison now. While he’s there, he meets a man named Baines, who is portrayed by Albert Hall.
When Malcolm asks Baines what his hype is, Baines says he can show Malcolm how to get out of prison—no hype.
“Oh yeah? Talk.”
Baines goes on to tell Malcolm how even if he were to get out of prison, you wouldn’t be free. Elijah Muhammad can get you out of prison. The prison of your mind.
The basic gist of that is true, but as far as I can tell, Baines is a composite character. Probably the closest real person he’d be would be an older burglar that Malcolm met in prison named Bimbi. It was Bimbi who helped Malcolm learn the importance of reading—and through reading, gaining knowledge.
However, it was a mixture of characters who introduced Malcolm to the Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam. The movie also speeds things up quite a bit by making it seem like this happens right after Malcolm is sent to prison.
In truth, it was a couple years after he was sent to prison that Malcolm first learned about the Nation of Islam. By this time, he’d been transferred to the Colcord Prison when he got a letter from one of his friends. In the letter, his friend—a man named Philbert—told Malcolm he’d joined the Nation of Islam.
Then, later, another letter arrived for Malcolm. This time it was from Reginald, who was probably one of Malcolm’s closest friends during his Harlem days. Reginald said he knew of a way for Malcolm to get out of prison and told him to stop smoking cigarettes and to stop eating pork.
Malcolm didn’t really know what he meant but was determined to do whatever he had to do to get out. So, he stopped smoking and stopped eating pork.
All this time, Malcolm’s sister, Ella, had been petitioning the courts to get her brother transferred to a better prison, Norfolk Prison Colony. That finally paid off when he was transferred there at the end of 1948.
One major benefit of this for Malcolm was that the Colony’s visitation rules were more lenient than the other prisons he’d been at. That allowed Reginald to come visit Malcolm—and finally answered the question that Malcolm had wondered: How will not eating pork and not smoking help me get out of prison?
According to Malcolm X’s autobiography, Reginald explained that God is a man who has 360 degrees of knowledge. He knows everything. God’s real name is Allah, and he has revealed himself to Elijah Muhammad—a black man.
Then, Reginald continued to explain that on the other end of that spectrum, the devil only has 33 degrees of knowledge. He told Malcolm that the white man is the devil, and worst of all are where the 33 degrees comes from—the Masons.
After Reginald left, Malcolm was left with plenty of time to do nothing but think. He’d certainly had a hard time with racism in his life, but he’d known some good white men, too.
Oh, and there’s a brief moment in the movie where Denzel Washington’s version of Malcolm Little confronts the prison’s priest, who is played by Christopher Plummer. Malcolm asks what color Jesus and the disciples were. When the priest says we don’t know for certain, Malcolm says that Jesus wasn’t white—to which the priest shoots back, God is white—can’t you see?
He points to the painting behind him of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus.
Malcolm says, yes, I can see in the painting he is white but Jesus was a Hebrew—but that Elijah Muhammad teaches us that the paintings and depictions we see throughout churches are not historically correct.
That confrontation happened, although in truth the priest never said God is white.
He wasn’t really a priest yet, but rather a seminary student, and after giving a sermon on Paul, Malcolm raised his hand to ask what color Paul was.
That’s not the kind of question he expected, but the student admitted that, yes, Paul was a Hebrew and the original Hebrews were black. So, Paul was probably black. Then, when the question of Jesus’s color came up. The entire class was enthralled—no one had ever thought to question the countless paintings that show Jesus to be white throughout history.
After a pause, the student said that Jesus was brown. It was a compromise; Malcolm stopped pushing it after that.
Going back to the movie, Malcolm’s conversion to Islam means he must bend his knees in prayer. He has trouble doing this at first. Then, he’s finally able to bend his knees in prayer to Allah after being visited by Elijah Muhammad, the founder and leader of the Nation of Islam in his cell—a vision that, according to the movie, was no dream. Then, after being paroled from prison, he goes to Chicago to meet Elijah Muhammad.
Malcolm tears up meeting the man who inspired such a change in his life. Elijah Muhammad reminds him that the world is still full of temptation—but I believe you will be faithful.
Malcolm says he will.
After this, we see Malcolm start preaching on the street. Along with other members of the Nation of Islam, he’s handing out fliers and speaking to whomever will listen.
Although I couldn’t find anything about a vision like we see in the movie, it is true that Malcolm had trouble bending his knee in prayer. It wasn’t Baines who told Malcolm how to pray like we see in the movie. Instead, after writing a letter to Elijah Muhammad, it was the reply that encouraged Malcolm to bend his knee in prayer. Not only that, but letters from family also helped him.
But still, it was hard. Malcolm would later recall the act of praying was the hardest test he’d ever faced—it took him a week to finally bend his knee in prayer.
Oh, and there’s another important bit the movie doesn’t mention. Well, it sort of does. By that, what I’m referring to is when we see the movie briefly mention that Malcolm wrote letters to a bunch of his old friends—the hustlers and people he ran with. We see a letter go to Shorty, another to Archie.
The reason this is important is because it was around this time, after Malcolm had finally bent his knee in prayer to Allah, that he started writing letters to anyone and everyone he could think of. He started telling them about the Nation of Islam and the teachings of Elijah Muhammad that he’d come to believe.
As the movie briefly mentions, he even wrote to the President of the United States at the time, Harry S. Truman. Of course, Truman never responded, but it was around this time that the FBI opened up a file on Malcolm Little because of that letter.
And that brings us to the bit of importance…Little. It was around this time that Malcolm Little became Malcolm X for the first time. As he’d later explain, the name ‘Little’ had been given to his ancestors by slavemasters. He was renouncing the name.
Oh, and in the movie, the character of Baines tells Malcolm that he needs to learn all the words in the dictionary to uncover their true meaning. That’s not really what happened.
What really happened was that after Malcolm started writing so many letters, he started getting frustrated with his lack of knowledge—he couldn’t express the thoughts in his head on paper. He turned to the well-read Bimbi, who suggested Malcolm start studying the dictionary. So, he did.
But the movie did get the year of Malcolm’s parole correct—1952. It was in August of 1952, actually, which meant that Malcolm X served six years in prison.
There’s another brief moment in the movie to touch on, and that’s when we see Malcolm go to the Bronx to visit West Indian Archie. In the movie, it looks like Archie’s had a stroke and doesn’t seem to be able to walk.
Denzel’s version of Malcolm lets himself into Archie’s apartment and thanks him for saving his life back in Harlem.
That visit did happen, but I couldn’t find anything to suggest Archie had had a stroke like the movie says. He was elderly—remember, he was in his 60s a decade or so earlier when Malcolm worked for him. And, he was sick. But, he also greeted Malcolm at the door when he knocked. And, after a while, he remembered and the two had a chat.
Oh, and the topic of the number did come up, too. Although, in the movie, Denzel’s version of Malcolm says he doesn’t even remember what number he had when in truth Malcolm told Archie that he really did believe he had that number—but, then the two decided it was time to put that in the past.
Going back to the movie, we see Malcolm giving a speech in a small room. After the speech ends, there’s that kind of moment in a movie where the movie doesn’t say anything about the character, but because it’s a big-name actor you know they’ll play a big part in the film. This time it’s Angela Bassett’s character, who we see clapping along with the rest of the audience to Malcolm’s speech.
Then, afterward, Baines introduces her to Malcolm as Sister Betty. The two hit it off quickly and, interspersed around a few other scenes where we see Malcolm’s power in the Nation of Islam growing as he’s named the National Minister, we also see Malcolm call up Betty on the phone to propose to her.
Before long, the two are married.
The movie doesn’t indicate any sort of time, but we know from history that Malcolm and Betty were married in 1958.
And yes, Malcolm really did propose to her over the phone. Then, two days later, they were married.
Even though their relationship seems to move very quickly in the movie—and obviously getting married two days after proposing is fast—but the movie implies the relationship moved faster than it really did. By that, what I mean is from the moment we see Betty and Malcolm meet until they’re married it doesn’t seem that long.
The movie doesn’t give us a time span there, but that happened over a little less than three years. Betty met Malcolm for the first time in 1955, then they were married in January of 1958.
Although, the timeline in the movie seems to be a bit off, because as best as I can tell, even though Malcolm X did become the first National Minister for the Nation of Islam, it didn’t happen before he married Betty in 1958 like the movie shows. The reason I say “as best as I can tell” is because I found some conflicting dates based on different sources. But they’re all after 1958 with most of them seeming to say either 1961 or 1962 is when Elijah Muhammad appointed him as National Minister.
Back in the movie, while Malcolm and Betty are sitting at home. We quickly realize it’s time for them to have one of those conversations.
Betty starts by asking Malcolm if they’ve ever had a fight.
“No, never,” Malcolm says.
Then, Betty says they’re about to have one if we don’t talk about it. It’s clear Malcolm knows what she’s talking about, but we don’t learn what it is until Betty picks up the paper.
If you pause the movie here you can see the headline on the paper. It says, “Two Muslim Women Ask Cult Leader For Support.”
We can’t see what the article says, but Betty starts reading the paper. “The 67-year-old leader of the black Muslim movement is facing paternity suits from two former secretaries,” Betty reads.
Malcolm denies these accusations, telling Betty they’re flat out lies. This is the devil’s newspaper and he’s trying to divide us by tearing down our leader!
But Betty isn’t so convinced…
“Are you so dedicated that you’ve blinded yourself to the truth?” She asks.
…and the fight continues. Betty’s pleading with Malcolm to open his eyes.
Then, Malcolm goes to visit the women who claim their children are Elijah Muhammad’s. Finally, he’s convinced. This is a huge deal because it went against Elijah Muhammad’s own teachings for the Nation of Islam.
This happened, and it was the beginning of the end for Malcolm’s involvement in the Nation of Islam.
The movie again doesn’t tell us what year this is, but we know from history this was 1963. Reflecting back on these events, Malcolm acknowledged hearing about rumors of Elijah Muhammad’s inappropriate behavior as far back as 1955—just three years after Malcolm got out of prison.
But, for a long time he refused to believe it.
For a long time, everyone refused to believe it. And because adultery was abhorrent to the Nation, the women who ended up pregnant would often be tried, charged with adultery and sent off to isolation—basically, shut away without being able to contact any other Muslims.
In this way, the Nation was covering it all up. We don’t really know if this was on purpose or, if like Malcolm X, many in the Nation simply couldn’t fathom that Elijah Muhammad could be guilty of adultery.
So, just like the movie shows, Malcolm investigated on his own. He broke protocol and looked up some of the women who were still in their isolated state. These women who claimed to have Elijah Muhammad’s children.
He found out that not only were these not just stories, but that Elijah Muhammad had been badmouthing Malcolm X behind his back. He’d been telling the women that Malcolm was dangerous, and not someone to be trusted.
Finally, Malcolm went to talk to Elijah Muhammad himself. He confronted the leader, asking him to explain the things that were being said about him.
When he did, Elijah Muhammad didn’t deny any of it. Instead, he referenced men in the Bible who had done similar things—for example, the story of King David who stole Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba.
While this was happening, something else happened that we see in the movie.
I’m referring to when, on November 22nd, 1963, President Kennedy is assassinated. Soon after, Malcolm X is asked by the media for comments on the event.
In the movie, we see Denzel’s version of Malcolm X replies to the reporters by saying when you send out chickens, you expect them to come home to you at the end of the day. The violence he’s perpetrated here and abroad has finally come back…it’s the devil’s chickens coming home to roost.
And that is the same metaphor the real Malcolm X used when he was asked about the assassination following a speech he gave on December 4th, 1963. Today, it’s referred to as the “Chickens Coming Home to Roost” speech simply because of the answer Malcolm gave after the speech about Kennedy’s assassination.
That answer struck so deep that it was extremely controversial. After the assassination, the nation was in shock—and that wasn’t the answer a lot of people wanted to hear.
Even though Malcolm claimed his words were misinterpreted and he had simply meant that hatred had spread so much to create a society in which the assassination could be possible, Elijah Muhammad decided to suspend Malcolm X for 90 days—keeping him from speaking to the press on behalf of the Nation of Islam for that time.
Already upset with everything we learned about with Elijah Muhammad’s adultery, and believing that the “coming home to roost” bit had only been an excuse for the suspension, on March 8th, 1964, Malcolm X publicly announced he was leaving the Nation of Islam.
Back in the movie, after leaving the Nation of Islam, we see Malcolm take a pilgrimage to Mecca. We see Denzel’s version of Malcolm stop by the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx. It’s the trip of a lifetime.
At one point we see Malcolm praying alongside his Muslim brothers—including white men.
This trip really happened. It was in April of 1964 when Malcolm decided to take the pilgrimage to Mecca.
It was eye-opening for Malcolm. Once outside America, he was amazed at the kindness of total strangers. While he was in Cairo, there were other Muslims who were on the same journey who hugged as though they were friends even though they were strangers.
And they were people of all colors—race didn’t matter.
This sort of common bond beyond race made a huge impact on Malcolm. He’d later write that it was this trip that proved to him that people of all races can come together as one through the power of God.
Oh, and even though the movie doesn’t mention it, it was somewhere around here that Malcolm X gave himself a surname—Shabazz.
Or, more specifically, el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz.
Although, because of his popularity as Malcolm X, a lot of people still called him that…and since the movie does, too, that’s what I’ll call him throughout the remainder of this episode.
Back in the movie, after returning home to the United States, Malcolm calls a press conference and announces he now has friends of all races. He’s willing to work with any other civil rights leaders as long as they’re working toward real, positive results.
One of the reporters asks Malcolm about his former comment about having black men get guns to form rifle clubs.
And that really was one of the questions that Malcolm X faced as soon as his plane arrived back in the U.S. His reply was similar to what we see in the movie, too.
Basically, when white people are allowed to have guns it’s Constitutional for self-defense. When black people have them, for some reason that’s seen as ominous.
Then, Malcolm went on to explain that even though he had made sweeping statements about all white people before—he will never do that again. His trip to Mecca showed him that all races can live together in harmony.
However, he was also very careful to point out that racism was still a problem in America.
Going back to the movie, after this we see Malcolm at home getting a phone call. He’s carrying a gun when he answers it. The caller on the other end says something to the effect of, “Your days are numbered, Malcolm.”
Later, while Malcolm is at home in bed with Betty, he senses something isn’t right. Just then we see someone throw a firebomb in their house. Then there’s another one!
Fortunately, it appears that Malcolm, Betty, and their kids are able to make it out of the house unharmed. The house behind them is engulfed in flame. Then, later, Baines tells the media that he thinks Malcolm burned his own house as a publicity stunt.
The movie doesn’t give an indication of time here, but that actually happened on Valentine’s Day, February 14th, 1965. They were, like the movie suggests, some Molotov cocktails that had been throw in the front window of their home.
Fortunately, the movie is correct in showing that everyone got out safe. Although it’s also correct in stating that someone said they thought it was a publicity stunt—although it wasn’t the fictional Baines character. But it was a minister in the Nation of Islam who told the media he thought Malcolm did it in an attempt to get publicity.
That didn’t make Malcolm happy.
Back in the movie, Malcolm is getting ready to give another speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. He’s still getting death threats, enough so that Malcolm decides to stay at a hotel room the night before just so his family won’t be caught up in any violence should it happen.
But, nothing happens that night. The next day, Malcolm goes to the Audubon. As he gets up on stage and begins his speech, someone in the back yells something.
Two men stand up, arguing.
Then, one of the men throws down what appears to be some kind of a smoke grenade. People scream and chaos ensues. While everyone is focused on what’s going on in the back, we see a man in a trench coat run up to the front. He’s carrying something.
It’s a shotgun.
He aims and shoots. The podium splinters into pieces as Malcolm falls back from the force of the blast. Then, after he’s already on the ground, two men step up with pistols and keep shooting repeatedly at Malcolm’s body.
The camera cuts to Malcolm’s kids in the audience as they’re watching their dad get murdered in front of their eyes.
One thing the movie doesn’t mention, though, was when Malcolm X told an interviewer on February 19th that he believed the Nation of Islam was trying to kill him.
Two days later, on February 21st, it happened.
And even though the movie is a dramatic recreation of the events, it does a pretty good job of showing what happened based on the reports of those who were there.
There were about 400 people in the audience in that day.
First, there was the distraction.
“Take your hand out my pocket!”
Malcolm tried to calm them down, “Hold it, hold it!”
With everyone focused on the people in the back, no one even paid attention to the men who made their way to the front.
One witness who happened to glance back and see them said it looked like a firing line—three of them. Another witness said there were only two, but one had a shotgun while the other had two pistols.
Speaking of witnesses, yes, the movie is correct in showing that Betty was there along with their kids.
Malcolm was shot 21 times, including the initial shotgun blast that left 10 buckshot wounds.
In the ensuing panic, just like the movie shows, one of the gunmen was caught by the crowd. They went on to beat him until the police arrived.
From February 23rd to the 26th, a funeral was held for Malcolm X that saw somewhere around 20,000 people show up to pay their respects.
Then, in March, three gunmen were charged with the murder and sentenced to life in prison. One of them died in prison in 2009 while the other two have since been released.