X is a Variable: The Lost Tapes of Malcolm X

by: J. K. Schmid Special to the AFRO
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Malcolm X is featured in the season premiere of Smithsonian Channel’s “The Lost Tapes,” and the episode enjoyed a debut screening hosted by Comcast, Smithsonian Channel and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture in Baltimore.

Among the 50 guests present for the screening were city council members Sharon Green Middleton (District 6) and Leon F. Pinkett, III (District 7). A panel discussion followed the episode, which included Smithsonian Channel Executive Producer John Cavanaugh, Damion Thomas, Ph.D, curator of the National Museum of African American History & Culture, and members of the audience.

From left: Damion Thomas, PhD, Curator, National Museum of African American History and Culture; Dana De Santo, Director of Distributor Marketing, Smithsonian Channel; Donna Rattley Washington, Vice President of Government & Community Affairs for Comcast’s Beltway Region; Sharon Green Middleton, Vice President, Baltimore City Council; John Cavanagh, Executive Producer, Smithsonian Channel; Wanda Draper, Executive Director, Reginald F. Lewis Museum (Courtesy Photo/Comcast)

Without narration and with few title cards between scenes to provide context, the film seems almost fanatically—or, perhaps, militantly—committed to an objective accounting of Malcolm X’s 1962 rise to prominence in the aftermath of the LAPD’s shooting of Nation of Islam member Ronald Stokes through his assassination in 1965.

“Malcolm X’s” verite style draws on archival footage of the minister and civil rights leader in his prime, pulling from speeches to his congregants, panel discussions on “City Desk” and the breathless wild-eyed insinuations of young Mike Wallace’s “The Hate That Hate Produced.”

Photographs and audio recordings smooth the transitions from one segment to the next, leaving the viewer witness to something like a 48-minute testimonial.

“This is the first time that I have been able to just soak up and eat his words from his mouth,” one audience member said during the panel discussion. “I may have a recording here or a recording there. But to have a film that chronologically allows me to hear him speak, his speaking in not just sound bites, that’s what I appreciate most about this.”

The film’s primary focus is simply what Malcolm said and what he did, leaving any further analysis by the wayside. The viewer is left to fill in the gaps between every line with their own meaning, or to try to imagine the producers’ own intent.

For example, one video sample so degraded that Malcolm’s face is washed out, leaving only a gleaming white silhouette. Watching Malcolm preaching, it is as if he is glowing with inner light. Is it an allusion to Malcolm’s divine spark? He’s sainted by more than one adherent in the film. When a director doesn’t say anything, the search for meaning can grow desperate.

“I think it’s a consequence of the filmmaking format, as much as anything,” Cavanaugh told the AFRO. “Certainly, we tell American history stories. That’s what we do. That is always sort of our mode of thinking. When we go back and look at stories like this, it’s about telling you what happened. And this series, more than any other, it’s immersive. When there’s no narration, it’s about dropping you in the moment and experiencing history sort of live. You’re seeing reactions to events as they occur.”

It may be useful to consider “The Lost Tapes: Malcolm X” as a museum piece, a curio. The closest the film gets to narrative and character are pictures of Malcolm on his pilgrimage to Mecca, near his conversion to Sunni Islam. The closest to a private moment is Malcolm kneeling alone with his god in the Great Mosque of Muhammed Ali, Cairo. But he’s not saying anything.

Like the pyramids, “The Lost Tapes” Malcolm is grandiose, regal, larger than life, but there’s never a peek at the man inside.

“The Lost Tapes: Malcolm X” will premiere on the Smithsonian Channel on Monday, February 26 at 8 p.m. ET.

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