Autobiographical Adaptation and the Role of Redemption

“Wasn’t Malcolm X a Black Panther or something?” An anonymous college student can be overheard in a classroom full of students waiting for their weekly lecture on “Black Social Movements” to begin. Ignorant assumptions like the above are what prompt filmmakers, like Spike Lee, to adapt informative but vastly overlooked books into the highly consumed medium of film. The lives of many misunderstood legends ranging from John Keats to Malcolm X, by way of their respective poetry and autobiography, have been adapted into feature films as an attempt to bridge the gaps between their assumed desired legacies and the often opposing common perceptions of their lives. In a full pursuit of the truth it is important to examine these films in relationship to the lives and works that they are based upon. Due to the fact that autobiographies often disclose exclusive information about the author, filmmakers, in adapting books by misrepresented public figures, are required to be selective in choosing what details to include in their films. Although some may argue that the omission of certain information distorts the truth, this strategic selection enables filmmakers to appeal to a wider audience than the original book and redeem the image of historical icons.

Before the process of strategic omission can be justified, the autobiographical works that are deserving of redemptive adaptation must be determined through the extent to which the character in question has been historically misrepresented. Due to the nature of a tabloid-crazed American media, no high profile figures, including celebrities and politicians, are safe from scrutiny. Almost everyone who has dared to enter the public eye has become the victim of some sort of slander, but only select influential figures have suffered from complete and intentional character defamation on behalf of the media. Many people today remember and regard Malcolm X, a revolutionary leader of the Civil Rights Movement, as a violent and unsympathetic segregationist. These twisted assumptions, however, are far from the honorable character that Malcolm X worked to establish in his short lived 39 years of life. News stations, throughout his lifetime and posthumously, capitalized on his controversial but justifiably separatist and self-defensive philosophies and largely contributed to the widespread misconceptions that still surround the legacy of Malcolm X today. The article “’Myth’ and the Making of ‘Malcolm X’” by Gerald Horne explores the reasoning behind such distortion in documenting that:

When televised violence erupted, featuring white racists beating black protesters, the black Left narrative that sought to explain such bestiality…was barely visible. A competing narrative that featured denunciations of “white devils” could be received more readily in the absence of the black Left narrative (443).


Here, not only was Malcolm X’s infamous term “white devil” amplified in the media above his conditional cooperative pleas, but his seemingly consistent angry tone was often juxtaposed with the violent protests that he worked diligently to avoid. In addition to the blatant exaggeration of Malcolm X’s ideologies during his lifetime, traces of societal bias can still be found academia. In a standard United States history book, it is not uncommon to find an exceptionally short section on the Civil Rights movement with the names Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X boldly serving as opposing section headers. The constant juxtaposition of the widely received Christian minister to a misconstrued radical minister of Islam further casts Malcolm X as an unwarranted extremist. This continued assassination of character is indeed entitled to the rights of strategic adaptation.

In regard of excessive defamation and since autobiographies are written in the stream of consciousness, filmmakers who adapt these books are forced by conventional time constraints to be selective in choosing what content to lose in the process of adaptation. To include everything that is present in the book would be far too extensive and, at times, inexcusably inconsistent. Lengthy narrative novels, such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X, allot space and time for subtle and occasionally overt contradictions and exaggerations. The relatively short and visually engaging nature of feature film, however, makes it a difficult medium through which to present opposing truths without confusing the audience. For instance, in his novel, Malcolm X provides readers with thorough and blunt descriptions of his personal beliefs as well as his interactions with his followers. In discussing his rise as a Muslim minister, he recalls a snippet of a speech in which he asserts:

Every time you see a white man, think about the devil you’re seeing! Think of how it was on your slave foreparents’ bloody, sweaty backs that he built this empire that’s today the richest of all nations—where his evil and his greed cause him to be hated around the world! (215)


Hateful quotes similar to the above excerpt were embedded throughout the majority of the novel. The term “devil” practically becomes synonymous with “white man” in the book. This type of language and slander, however, was not present in the Spike Lee film, Malcolm X. In fact, such statements would have been contradictory to the Malcolm X portrayed in the film who avoided direct questioning from media asking if he thought “all white people [were] devils.” The most prevalent argument against the ideologies of Malcolm X suggests that he was a hateful man who condoned violence. Although there were several moments in the book where Malcolm expressed his hate for the white man, direct quotes were not taken from such segments and adapted to the screenplay because such claims would have been detrimental to the heroic and honorable image of Malcolm X that director Spike Lee worked diligently to create. Such a fundamental conflict in portrayals would have been distracting. Lee, through the use of selective omission, manages to capture the true essence of Malcolm X as presented in his book while still maintaining a respectable image.

When trying to create a new and admirable image for an already misrepresented historical figure, filmmakers sometimes have to include content from the autobiography that casts the figure in a negative light. These inclusions are essential to the integrity of the film in relation to the original work. Regardless of whether or not a particular period of a person’s life reflects a positive and consistent depiction of their life as a whole, it needs to be included for the sake of the trustworthiness and legitimacy of the film. For example, the detailed inclusion of Malcolm X’s long-term relationship with a woman of the same race he became known to condemn is not something to be praised. This detail, however, as well the fact that he dumped an African-American girl for a White Sophia, was included in the film to serve as a direct example of the brainwashed ideologies of African-Americans regarding beauty and purity that Malcolm later denounced in his speeches as an activist. Without the inclusion of Sophia in the screenplay, there would be no valid reason why Malcolm spent six years in jail for a robbery that only earned his White female counterpart two years, a discrepancy that was clearly racially based. Not only did Sophia’s character need to be present in the film to justify Malcolm X’s unwarranted prison sentence and to advance the plot, but her character also provides viewers with a sense of inside information regarding Malcolm’s shameful past.

Despite the strategic inclusion of negative content overall, the innately flawed human natures of historical figures are often diluted in films to support the filmmaker’s objective. This selective omission of information and distortion of the truth, however, can be beneficial to the preservation and reinvention of the already misrepresented historical figure’s reputation and legacy. At a first glance, details that cast the main character in an unfavorable light do not seem to fit soundly in a film about a historical leader who’s public image has already been shattered by various influential sources. In the case of Malcolm X, his controversial relationship with a White woman was included in the film for a number of reasons. Since Spike Lee decided to omit concrete details about Malcolm’s long history of drug abuse and drug dealership that are present in the novel, Sophia’s charming character represented scandal without compromising Malcolm’s image as a respectable and feared leader. Although Sophia had a stronger presence in the film than she did in the novel, some details were left out of the movie. In the autobiography, Malcolm is honest with his readers about his dealings with Sophia over the many years that they were involved. In discussing the continuation of their romance even after Sophia got married to a white man, Malcolm states:

I didn’t ask questions, but Sophia often indicated they weren’t doing too well. I know I had nothing to do with that. He never dreamed I existed…Sophia always had given me money…It was his money she gave me, I guess, because she never had worked (136).


The fact that Sophia and Malcolm continued to see each other after she got married to another man was completely left out of the screenplay. In the film, the last interaction between Malcolm and Sophia occurs before they both are sent to prison and Sophia is later shown in a house with her husband in what appears to be a loveless marriage. This discrepancy between the content of the book and the film is not without cause. Malcolm X as an adulterer in the movie would fully contradict his later adoration and respect for women after his conversion to Islam. In fact, he would later leave the Nation of Islam because of his leader’s, Elijah Muhammad, confession of sexual immorality. To include details of his own ties to adultery would cast him as hypocritical, yet another trait of the white man which he strongly opposed and rebuked throughout the film.

Although some may argue that the distortion of truth is a form of deception, the selective process of displaying negative segments of one’s past is an effective ploy to spare viewers’ minds from taint and misleading assumptions. By distorting or excluding details from the onscreen portrayals of the lives of historical icons, filmmakers prohibit viewers from full access into the lives of these figures, thus saving them from having to block out unwanted images from their memories. In no way is a complete disregard for truth acceptable, but due to the visually and auditory stimulating nature of film, it is reasonable for directors to alter certain provocative details that are provided in the autobiographical novel on which the film is based. The treatment of Malcolm X’s drug use in the movie serves as a fitting example. By not providing explicit footage of Malcolm’s excessive drug use, director Lee prevents the graphic image from entering the minds of viewers. The only instance in which Malcolm X was seen doing drugs is in a scene that displays him with a group of his friends, including Sophia, sniffing cocaine. In this scene, everyone is shown laughing uncontrollably and having a good time. The strung out, incessantly high druggie that Malcolm X admitted to being in his book was nonexistent in the film. A few scenes were included throughout the film that placed Malcolm in the same vicinity with drugs, but not once was Malcolm’s character shown partaking in the drug dealing or hard using activities that were described in the novel. The following excerpt is only a small fraction of the shocking facts that were revealed in the book:

I stayed so high that I was in a dream world. Now, sometimes, I smoked opium with some white friends, actors who lived downtown. And I smoked more reefers than ever before. I didn’t smoke the usual wooden-math-sized sticks of marijuana. I was so far gone by now that I smoked it almost by the ounce (124)… I viewed narcotics as most people regard food. I wore my guns as today I wear my neckties (139).


Had Lee decided to insert a scene for every instance that Malcolm X described getting high in his autobiography, it would be virtually impossible for viewers to openly accept and respect the same Malcolm X who was shown less than an hour later on various podiums preaching to the masses. A completely accurate portrayal of the drug addict that he once was would not have been unfair to the legacy of Malcolm X. However, since the film serves as a form of reconciliation with the leader, whose name has been slandered in history books and in the media as an unjustified violent delinquent, it would have been counterproductive to incorporate such stereotypical details into this film of redemption. While some may feel deceived by the sugarcoated portrayal of Malcolm X’s relationship with drugs, the dilution of these explicit details contributed to the promotion of the noble man the film prompted viewers to sympathize with by the end. The ode to Malcolm X in the last scenes along with the classroom scene where students and teachers are shown recognizing “Malcolm X Day” on which school was not cancelled, but rather in session, makes the redemptive aim of Lee’s film even more apparent.

The opportunity for change and correction that adaptation provides is effectively displayed in the development of The Autobiography of Malcolm X into the film Malcolm X. Although director Spike Lee made a successful attempt to reconstruct the image of one of the most misunderstood leaders in American history, the underlying problems remain, as there is no reason why icons, such as Malcolm X, should be widely misrepresented to begin with. The media was arguably the most damaging factor in his defamation. In today’s society, the role of the media is only increasing in the lives of people through the expansion of cable television and online social networks. As members of such an accessible society, it is now possible for many to be directly involved in mass communication. It is up to the millions of Twitter and Facebook users to put these sites to work and demand accuracy and full disclosure from influential information sources. Furthermore, once textbook writers and educators begin to record and teach history accurately, filmmakers, like Spike Lee, will not have to single-handedly inherit the responsibility of rewriting history’s wrongs. The politics of education and mass communication will remain the same until the very people being affected by it start considering themselves directly responsible for the preservation of truth.


Works Cited

Horne, Gerald. “Myth” and the Making of “Malcolm X.” The American Historical Review 98 No. 2 (1993): 440-450. Web. 2 December 2011.

Malcolm X. Dir. Spike Lee. Perf. Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett. Warner Bros.,1992.        DVD

X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Brattleboro, Vermont: Parallax Publishing Company, Inc. 1964. Print.

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