Manhattan, 1965. Legendary African American civil rights leader Malcolm X was preparing to deliver a speech to a packed ballroom when a man rushed onto the stage and shot him in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun. After trying to flee the scene, the gunman was arrested by the NYPD along with two of his accomplices. They each received a sentence of 20 years to life.
Sounds open and shut, right? Abdur-Rahman Muhammad doesn’t think so.
In fact, he has a lot of questions to ask in Phil Bertelsen and Rachel Dretzin’s series Who Killed Malcolm X? Why did the NYPD not provide security Malcolm, whose revolutionary ideals and confrontational (to say the least) speeches had made him countless enemies? Why did the police, when they finally arrived at the ballroom, stroll nonchalant around the murder scene like it was Central Park? And why were the three men found guilty when the evidence against two of them was almost laughably flimsy?
That last question might call to mind Netflix’s own Making a Murderer and it’s not unreasonable to think the streaming kingpin was looking to repeat some of that success here. But while Muhammad’s dive into the specifics of Malcolm’s death is interesting, Who Killed Malcolm X? is at its most compelling when it explores Malcolm’s life up to the shooting, including the various organisations he was on less-than-friendly terms with.
There was the FBI, who were tracking him relentlessly and had informants among even his closest friends. Then there was the NYPD, who didn’t trust Malcolm nor were trusted by him. And finally, there was the Nation of Islam, where Malcolm had served as second in command to the highly revered and highly dubious Elijah Muhammad.
Not to be confused with our investigator Abdur-Rahman Muhammad. But as you may guess from the name, he is a Muslim himself. That means the circumstances around Malcolm’s (or “Brother Malcolm’s”) death hold a special significance for him, as it does for many other black Muslims.
Abdur-Rahman says from the outset that he isn’t a lawyer (“I’m not even a professional”), he’s just a humble amateur sleuth. But as quickly as that fact is revealed, a Pulitzer Prize winner reassures us that this man is the real deal. Nobody has put in as much time and sweat into investigating Malcolm X’s murder than he has.
That devotion proves to be something of an issue. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer the boring and objective type of history documentary. Ones told by the passionless, sexless people we all know historians to be.
By contrast Abdur-Rahman makes no secret of the admiration he has for his subject, the words of Malcolm X resonating with him as a young man who had suffered racial abuse. He also makes no secret about the personal nature of his quest. “This is about getting justice for Malcolm”.
His blatant subjectivity can at best undermine him and at worst make him sound like a conspiracy theorist who’s convinced he’s seeing through the looking glass. But when our humble amateur sleuth can get out of his own way and let the evidence do the talking, it’s compelling to watch him open up wounds that had been stitched shut for 50 years.