Malcolm, Movement, Memory
The Texas Documentary Tour: Orlando Bagwell
"Make it plain" was Malcolm X's terse instruction to those who introduced him before a speech. Skip the hyperbole. The significance -- and tallness -- of that order becomes apparent after watching Malcolm X: Make it Plain, Orlando Bagwell's riveting and perfectly titled profile of the complicated, charismatic Black Muslim leader who was assassinated in 1965 at the age of 40. The premium on "plain-ness" -- keep the focus on the message, not the man -- and the passion behind it was evident early on when Malcolm Little scrapped the family surname for the generic X. Better to forfeit one's family identity than to knowingly carry the label of one's ancestors' slaveowners. As Bagwell found when he started researching his film, Malcolm was many things to many people, with not much overlap. From the incendiary black separatist who once fixed the "devil with blue eyes" squarely within his sights to a proponent of a kinder, gentler world where black unity, power, and pride coexisted in a larger brotherhood, Malcolm was clearly more than a serial ideologue. In the film's terrific closing scene, a shaken but clueless reporter at a press conference screws up his courage to ask, "Do you consider yourself -- "militant'?"
"No," responds the "by-the-ballot-or-the-bullet" orator, giggling. "I consider myself -- "Malcolm.'" So he had a sense of humor, as well.
Orlando Bagwell -- whose varied credits in 18 years of filmmaking include many award-winning PBS black-history programs, including two from the award-winning Eyes on the Prize (1987) series -- brings his Malcolm X: Make it Plain (1995) to the Austin Film Society's Texas Documentary Tour at the Alamo Drafthouse on Wednesday, October 6. He will also screen his most recent film, A Hymn for Alvin Ailey (1999), which premiered on PBS' Great Performances last February.
The Emmy Award-winning Make it Plain is a film about "transformation," explains the filmmaker, not just the biography of a man around whose call-to-arms thousands of African-Americans rallied in the Sixties while police departments, whites, and even civil rights activists got nervous-er and nervous-er. (The 60 Minutes clip of Mike Wallace's on-eggshells interview with Malcolm, captioned "The Hate That Hate Produced," perfectly captures the existing 'geist.) Even before embracing Islam, squaring off with the "white devil," and subsequently enlarging the tent and backing down from that extreme position, Malcolm X had already transmogrified several times -- from Malcolm Little, honor student, one of seven children in a poor but proud family of Marcus Garvey-ites who were tortured by the Lansing, Mich., Klan, to orphaned, zoot-suited East Coast hustler, who careered into drugs, felony, and finally the Massachusetts pen. While Malcolm was serving his six-and-a-half-year sentence, his siblings, who had become devotees of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, persuaded him to join the movement. When Little emerged from prison in 1952 as Malcolm X, he quickly won the respect and trust of Muhammad, who subsequently appointed him minister of Harlem's large, influential Temple #7.
The film, a PBS American Experience, combines revelatory interviews with Malcolm's inner circle of friends and family (including the brothers who remained in Muhammad's camp after Malcolm had been evicted) with archival footage documenting Malcolm's rapidly growing influence, the evolution of his rhetoric and philosophy, the schism with Muhammad and the Nation, the transforming trip to Mecca, and finally his assassination on the podium at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. Bagwell, who saw the documentary form as an excellent tool for piercing the advocacy and subjectivity inherent in Malcolm's legendary self-portrait (The Autobiography of Malcolm X written with Alex Haley), immediately ran into some unforeseen complications.
First, there was the fact that Spike Lee's well-financed, behemoth dramatic biography Malcolm X was well into production at the time Bagwell began his project, which meant that Lee had gotten to most of Bagwell's sources first. "We quickly discovered that Hollywood had put a price on all of the Malcolm materials -- everything, from people to be interviewed to all the archival material, letters, photos," recalls Bagwell. "We spent a lot of time negotiating with people who had anything we needed, showing them our books, patiently trying to explain the enormous differences between the budgets, box-office expectations, and editorial constraints of a documentary and Spike's Hollywood production. It was not easy to win sources' trust."
Bagwell was also taken aback by the "level of energy, attitude, and tension that Malcolm had excited in people and the battle among those with conflicting, intractable opinions over how he should properly be remembered. "As a filmmaker, I'd never found myself in such a hot, difficult environment as this one." As a result, he decided to limit his interviews to those who had close personal relationships with Malcolm. "I wanted the voices at the center of the film to be the members of his family -- his brothers, sister, wife, and daughter -- people who could help us know Malcolm as a full person instead of the person constructed by the media -- and Malcolm himself."
Not that this necessarily simplified things. Most members of the family had never been interviewed before: Here was this filmmaker who wanted to talk to them about long-buried, unresolved issues -- strained family relations, the assassination, why they hadn't attended their brother's funeral -- that they would have preferred not to revisit. "Three different times Malcolm's brother, Wilfred X, canceled his interview with me. Even the day he'd finally agreed to come in, he kept calling to say he couldn't make it," said Bagwell. "But then, when I finally talked him into the chair, he couldn't get up."
Austin Chronicle: What was it about Malcolm X that drew you to his story?
Orlando Bagwell: I was attracted to Malcolm X because in some ways I feel him in myself while, at the same time, his life was a discovery and a challenge to my own. I can empathize with him while at the same time critique his decisions and choices, the same as if I were making a film about Richard Nixon, Janis Joplin, or Michael Jordan. I believe we are all motivated by the same forces, inspired by similar truths, all weakened by the same temptations and conditions. It's the choices we make and that are made for or against us by others that make our lives different.
I don't think there is consensus in the black or white community about Malcolm's significance; I found that when he was alive, both were ambivalent about him. -- It's hard for me to gauge how much white people in America really know about black life in America. Few white people allow themselves to be in a situation where they might be one among a crowd of blacks; they have to make an effort to learn more about black history and culture. -- Since I believe we are more apt to fear what we don't know, I believe films can go a long way toward informing an eager American society and lessening the distance created by race, culture, and gender.
AC: Your film keeps the "Who killed Malcolm X?" question at arm's length, doesn't it? So many conspiracy theories have swirled around this issue over the years, yet the film doesn't address them.
OB: It's easy for a film to become a "Who did it?," but this was not the film we were making. That's an investigative piece; in the end, what does it really mean? I felt it was more important to do a film about this person who, whether we agreed or disagreed with him, had a major impact on the country at a certain time. We felt that was the more interesting film to make.
Three men were convicted of murdering Malcolm; all were Nation of Islam members. There were lots of conspiracy theories swirling during the Sixties; there were lots of assassinations at that time, so lots of conspiracy theories. People had strong conspiracy theories that the FBI was behind Malcolm's assassination; there were memos later found in FBI files about disrupting the Nation of Islam and targeting Malcolm and about the FBI planting stories that would create division between Malcolm and Muhammad. There were also theories that it was the New York Undercover Unit who was responsible, or the Nation of Islam -- or that they were all working together. There were agents and provocateurs and informants inside lots of those organizations. The FBI files show that they were inside the Nation, but no one has ever been able to prove that they had direct influence or involvement in the assassination.
When you make a film like this, lots of people begin to name names, but you can't indict or accuse people in films unless you have clear evidence. We were trying to make a responsible film; we were not trying to do a Hard Copy-type piece on the Malcolm X conspiracy theories.
AC: Your Hymn for Alvin Ailey film is certainly a change of pace from the Malcolm documentary. What you were trying to do in that film?
OB: I had been asked by Great Performances if I would be interested in doing a film with choreographer Judith Jamison [who succeeded Ailey after he died in 1989] and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The piece that Judith created was a dance in memory of Ailey. It started with Anna Deavere Smith [Twilight] interviewing the dancers and then performing (speaking) the words of the dancers onstage, as the dancers were dancing their interpretations of what she was saying on the stage. I found the different levels of interpretation quite exciting. I had always liked Anna Deavere Smith's work -- I think it's a lot like what we do with documentary films -- interview eyewitnesses and from their stories offer an audience a broader interpretation of a moment. I told Judith that I'd like to try and take her dance another step and interpret what she was doing: She'd taken the word and interpreted it into dance; I wanted to take the word and the dance and interpret them both into a film experience. She was interested. So we started to raise money.
I was all along trying to translate the dance into a larger memory about Ailey and to allow that memory to be as much about him as about what he represented to other people. It was an experimental construction from the beginning. I'm interested in this idea of how one takes certain forms of creative interpretation and expression to yet another form. How, for example, does one take a person's writing and make it work in a film, other than as a dramatic film? How can one make dance work on film not just as performance but as a story? That's really what it was about.
A Hymn for Alvin Ailey and Malcolm X: Make it Plain will be presented as part of the Texas Documentary Tour on Wednesday, October 6 at the Alamo Drafthouse. A Hymn for Alvin Ailey plays at 6:30pm; Malcolm X: Make it Plain plays at 8:30pm. Tickets for both shows go on sale at 6pm. Admission is $5 for the general public; $3.50 for Austin Film Society members and students. Orlando Bagwell will introduce the films and conduct a Q&A session after each screening. The Texas Documentary Tour is a co-presentation of the Austin Film Society, the University of Texas RTF Dept., KLRU-TV, The Austin Chronicle, and SXSW Film.