Judge Bill Gibron is convinced—not about the Nation of Islam conspiracy plot at the center of this film—but that a man like Malcolm X deserves a lot better than this dour documentary.
Too bad this documentary didn't try to make its point "by any means necessary."
As morbid and heartless as it sounds, when one traces back the impact of famous '60s deaths on the current popular culture, Malcolm X's assassination in 1965 gets very little long term due. His unnecessary murder just can't eclipse the passing of John F. Kennedy Jr. in '63 or Martin Luther King Jr. in '68. Reactions to both of those senseless shootings managed to transcend the tragedies to speak to deeper and more divisive issues in our still struggling nation. The killing of the dead President's brother Bobby seemed like piling on for the sake of smugness, the extinguishing of the last light of hope for a flailing counterculture.
Maybe it's because Malcolm X was such an incendiary figure. Maybe it's because the swath he cut was much larger and twice as deep into the heart of America's racist reality than anyone was prepared to acknowledge. Maybe it's because he tried to drag a religion down with his denouncement. Whatever the case may be, a major motion picture starring Denzel Washington and other image-rehabilitating looks into his life have drawn decidedly mixed results. We do not celebrate his life or give federal employees a paid vacation when his birthday rolls around. For Malcolm X, death didn't dignify or destroy anything. Instead, it created a legitimate limbo from which his aura has yet to escape.
Documentaries like Brother Minister: The Assassination of Malcolm X won't help matters much. Although thorough, engaging, and rife with details, director Jack Baxter isn't interested in contextualizing the man. For him, Malcolm X's murder is a mystery, a carefully-crafted cabal with the Nation of Islam, its freaked-out founder the Honorable Elijah Mohammed, and an up-and-coming brother by the name of Louis Farrakhan at the core. Instead of telling us who Malcolm X was from a purely political and cultural impact position, Baxter and collaborator Jefri Aalmuhammed are too busy drawing lines through and to the notable names involved. They fail to reconfigure X for a post-modern audience.
Instead, they toss in the FBI and NYPD, Oliver Stone-style, and consistently reference the formidable protection service, the FOI (for "Friends of Islam") as the brown shirts to the Nation's Nazis. The main premise for the presentation is that the individuals convicted of the crime, including the one shooter captured on the day in question, are not all 100 percent guilty. Indeed, two were falsely accused and spent nearly 20 years in jail before being released. Now Baxter and Aalmuhammed have their eye on a mosque in New Jersey, several of said congregation's FOI, and a visiting minister who just so happened to be in town on the day of X's killing—the aforementioned Farrakhan.
Though it never jumps up with its evidentiary proof to link the inflammatory leader with the death of Malcolm X, the inference is made frequently, including out of Farrakhan's own mouth. After his film was finished, Baxter came across some hidden video footage of a Nation of Islam meeting. In it, Farrakhan calls Malcolm a "traitor" and asks if other "nations," when dealing with such turncoats, are required to face such full-out public scrutiny. It's "none of y'all's business," he bellows, casting a metaphysical fist of defiance in the air. While it's hard to envision this religious lightning rod exposing himself so, privately or not, it's the fuel Baxter needs to support his otherwise circumstantial conclusions. Thankfully, it is used as a framing device, never overplayed or given conclusive importance. But that leaves the rest of the documentary to engage and enlighten. It barely does.
Baxter wants to walk us through the final facets of Malcolm X's fall from grace, yet it leaves obvious entryways into far more telling information unexplored or scarcely skimmed over. X argues in a TV interview that he will probably be killed and, when asked why, he gives a very clear answer—the Honorable Elijah Mohammed pulled a "Sexy Sadie" on him, tearing down the shroud of divinity to accuse Mohammed of the perverted practice of impregnating his teenage secretaries. Such a comment is a clarion call for further exploration. None arrives.
Then a newspaper reporter sets up a far more serious social issue. He states that X and King were planning on joining forces, using X's "any means necessary" and King's "peaceful disobedience" as a potent one-two punch against the still-simmering segregation in America. To someone who values both men's contributions to the cause, the thought of such an agreement—true or not—is mind-boggling. But Baxter again backs off, letting the possibility hang in the air before shifting over to other parts of his proposal.
Though there is ample use of archival footage and interesting recreations, this is still a talking-head presentation. Listening to men dig up these details, long after they've shed the shadow and shame of X's death, can be painful. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, it's just dull. We don't need three or four different variations on how cognizant Malcolm was of his threat to the Nation. We don't need three anecdotes about how crushed X was when he learned of Elijah Mohammed's missteps. Interestingly, the late leader's son, a true friend of X's is on hand to discuss some of the difficulties the two had, but instead of leading the discussion, he merely peppers it with pleasantries and then moves on.
At nearly two hours, Brother Minister is overlong and overbroad. A good 20 minutes could be removed and we wouldn't miss it. Focus is one of the foremost flaws in any documentary presentation, since we want the story and are easily distracted by ancillary issues. Sure, it's nice to see a couple of X's lieutenants get together for the first time in a quarter century, but it doesn't forward the claimed conspiracy theory. Indeed, a lot of what Baxter does here seems to walk a fine line between history and hype, demanding respect for his conclusions while he derails the arguments with ancillary issues. Certainly it can be argued that Spike Lee's biopic fills in all the holes that this fact film lacks, but some background and perspective are necessary when dealing with one-time hot-button figures long out of the public eye.
Why Malcolm X was important, what he stood for, and what his long-term goals were are part of what makes his killing so significant. Shuttling through them briefly in order to concentrate on the crime of his assassination is counterproductive to what Brother Minister wants to accomplish. This documentary demands X's place in the pantheon of politically-important assassinations, but its lack of focus keeps it from achieving that goal.
Since it was made over a decade ago, Brother Minister has that vibrant video look that seems dated and derivative, even today. Still, the 1.33:1 ful-screen image has nice color correction and definitive details. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, on the other hand, is rather limp and lifeless. There is very little spatial ambience and the overriding mood is thin and tinny.
On the bonus feature front, we are treated to two interesting interviews. One is with director Jack Baxter; the other is with Abdullah Abdur Razzaq (formerly James 67X Warden), one of Malcolm X's closest friends and associates. Both conversations are illuminating. Razzaq fills in many of the missing pieces regarding X's impact on the civil rights movement and the political clime in America at the time, while Baxter acknowledges that his film may have led to a crime—on the day it opened theatrically, Malcolm X's daughter Qubilah Shabazz was arrested for conspiring to assassinate…Louis Farrakhan.
Though its take on the time and the people involved can be occasionally mesmerizing, Brother Minister is missing a big chunk of the Malcolm X story. Not being able to understand what made him such a hated figure turns his killing from a social tragedy into a '60s statistic. This remarkable individual deserves better than such a slight. While this documentary deserves praise for the part it plays in illuminating the "who," it doesn't try and deliver the "why."
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Go Kart Films
• Interview with director Jack Baxter
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