Malcolm X:
A Comparison of
the Book and the Movie

by Jill W. Bishop
University of Minnesota ID # 1758728
AmSt1003/American Cultures, Cynthia Richter
November 12, 1996 - Submission 6



Director Spike Lee based his 1992 movie, Malcolm X starring Denzel Washington, on the 1965 book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley. Most significant events and experiences in the seventeen chapters of the book were covered in the movie with both focusing "...on the many transformations of Malcolm, from terrorized child [Malcolm Little] to hustler [Detroit Red] to prisoner to narrow nationalist [Malcolm X] to progressive nationalist [El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz]."1 Although Lee used artistic license to rearrange the chronology and the interplay of various characters, even going so far as to assign words in the book to different characters in the movie, the movie is obviously based on the book. Early events such as his father's murder, his mother's institutionalization, the white teacher telling him that he couldn't become "...a lawyer, that's no realistic goal for a nigger."2, and the burning of his house by the KKK were told or shown with great accuracy, but even the later events that were altered for the movie contributed to the cinema genre without changing the spirit of the message of the book.



A. MOTHER. One example of Lee's significantly altering a passage from the book yet maintaining its meaning is his interpretation of Malcolm's feelings toward his mother. In the book Malcolm said, "I have rarely talked to anyone about my mother, for I believe that I am capable of killing a person, without hesitation, who happened to make the wrong kind of remark about my mother."4 This passage in the book was expressed by Lee in a Harlem bar scene. When Malcolm bumped into a man in a bar and got called 'boy' and a 'country nigger,' he remained unresponsive. But when the man said "What you gonna do, go home to your Momma?" Malcolm hit him over the head with a liquor bottle and angrily said, "Nigger, don't you EVER in your life say anything against my mother!"5 They are very different versions of Malcolm's devotion to his mother, yet the same message was conveyed.

B. CONKED HAIR. A significant event in Malcolm's life was his first hair conk. It was an important issue with Malcolm then, and Lee selected it as a sufficiently important issue to start his movie. The book reads: "This was my first really big step toward self-deprecation: when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man's hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are "inferior"--and white people are "superior" --they will even violate and mutilate their God-created bodies to try to look "pretty" by white standards."6 Lee addressed that issue in the first scene of the movie with dialogue ending with Washington's lines, "Looks white, don't it."7

In a later scene Malcolm's hair-conking process resulted in his sticking his burning head in the toilet because of malfunctioning plumbing and ended with the police bursting in to arrest him. In the book there was no connection between hair conking and his arrest, but Lee connected this end to the process of hair-straightening, an important part of black pride adopted later in his life, and combined it with a major turning point in his life, his arrest and subsequent prison term.

C. WHAT CAN A WHITE PERSON DO? In the book, when "this little white college girl ...demanded, right up in my face, "Don't you believe there are any good white people?"" Malcolm said, "I didn't want to hurt her feelings. I told her, "People's deeds I believe in, Miss--not their words." "What can I do?" she exclaimed. I told her, "Nothing"" 8

In the movie the girl's lines were, "Excuse me, Mr. X, I've read some of your speeches and I honestly believe that a lot of what you have to say is true. I'm a good person in spite of what my ancestors did. And I wanted to ask you, what can a white person like myself, who isn't prejudiced, what can I do to help you and further the cause?" And Malcolm answered, "Nothing."9

Malcolm was less interested in protecting the girl's feelings in Lee's version. In both the book and the movie, "She burst out crying and ran"10 . Malcolm referred to this incident much later with regret, after his trip to Mecca and subsequent conversion, in both the movie and the book. Lee included the incident because it obviously had great significance to Malcolm, but he chose to downplay the "I didn't want to hurt her feelings."11 Lee portrayed Malcolm harsher and with less sympathy toward the college girl, thereby exaggerating Malcolm's final transformation in the last days of his life to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz who believed in universal brotherhood, not racism.


D. LETTERS FROM PRISON. Lee regularly took passages from the book that were written in narrative form and altered them to create scenes with conversation. Malcolm said "...unable to do anything else, I began writing to people I had known in the hustling world, ...I never got a single reply. ...What certainly went on the Harlem and Roxbury wires was that Detroit Red was going crazy in stir..."12 The movie scene showed the old hustling contacts reading and mocking a letter from Malcolm. Again Lee adapted this passage from the book to fit the medium of cinema without significantly altering the meaning.



A. BANES. While Lee altered some of the book characters' roles for the movie, he totally fabricated a character named Banes. Banes took on a combination of the attributes of Malcolm's adult siblings, fellow prison inmate Bimbi, and the Nation of Islam.

Banes first showed up in prison as an inmate who came to Malcolm with nutmeg to help salve his need for cocaine and then told him about the Nation of Islam. In the book Malcolm had told of getting high on nutmeg in prison, not attributing his source to any one character, but Lee gave this role to Banes.

The role of fellow inmate Bimbi in the book, the gifted orator who told Malcolm to study in prison, to take advantage of the prison library, and to take correspondence courses, was given to Banes in the movie.

In the book Malcolm told how he was introduced to the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad by his own blood brothers and sisters. Malcolm's brother Reginald told him about the devil white man and the brain-washed black man, and Malcolm's sister Hilda told him about Yucab's History, but again Lee gave these roles to Banes.

Malcolm wrote that in prison "I had to force myself to bend my knees. ...Again, again, I would force myself back down into the praying-to-Allah posture. When finally I was able to make myself stay down--I didn't know how to pray."13 The movie scene is played with Malcolm's learning to pray from Banes.

When Malcolm got out of prison he was released to the custody of his brother, Philbert, but Lee showed Malcolm sitting at the family dinner table with Banes. Although in the book Malcolm's adult brothers and sisters had a significant impact on his life, Lee excluded them completely from the movie.

Lee's most drastic alterations of characters were his creation of the character Banes and the total exclusion of Malcolm's adult siblings. The concocted character Banes remained a representative of the Nation of Islam for the remainder of the movie, a personification of Malcolm's initial devotion and final betrayal.

B. WOMEN. Lee excluded Malcolm's adult siblings from the movie, although they were a significant part of his adult years, and attributed some of the parts they played in his life to other characters. While Malcolm spoke very little about his wife Betty in the book, Lee made her a main character in the movie and gave her many of Malcolm's sister Ella's character traits, particularly her strength and pride. In the book Malcolm said, "Ella ...was the first really proud black woman I had ever seen in my life."14 In the movie it was Betty that was the strong woman in Malcolm's life.

Lee gave far more emphasis to the relationship with Betty in the movie than Malcolm did in the book. True to the cinematic appeal of a romantic love story, Lee exaggerated one that barely existed. He showed Betty uttering the phrase "You are with us even when you are away"15 in two separate scenes, even though that didn't appear in the book. Malcolm barely acknowledged concern for his wife or children's feelings before the end of his life when he was becoming more aware that it was likely to be cut short.

In the book Malcolm said, "My attitude toward money generated the only domestic quarrel that I have ever had with my beloved wife Betty."16 Lee, however, showed a fight scene between Malcolm and Betty that was not only about money. "Have we ever had a fight, an argument? We're gonna have one. ...the talk's everywhere. It's not just talk anymore. ...paternity suits [against Elijah Muhammad] from two secretaries ...Are you so committed that you're blinded to the truth? ...Do you know what Banes [meaning: the Nation of Islam] is doing? ...Open your eyes."17 Betty provided the wake-up call to Malcolm to be aware that the Nation of Islam, represented by Banes, was corrupt and out to harm him. In the book Betty never had any part in Malcolm's disillusionment with Elijah Muhammad or the Nation of Islam.

Lee was essentially accurate in his depiction of most of the main women in Malcolm's early life, his mother, Laura, and Sophia, but he altered Betty's character significantly and excluded Ella completely. The essential nature of his relationships with both Laura and Sophia were consistent in both the book and movie, but Lee added love scenes with them in the movie that were not in the book at all. Malcolm's only allusions to sex in the book were his descriptions of the kinky proclivities of white men during his pimping days. Lee handled the love scenes tastefully, but with far greater explicitness than Malcolm even implied.

In the book Malcolm emphasized his deep devotion to Elijah Muhammad and spiritual and emotional crisis upon learning of his corruptness, but Lee de-emphasized the intense devotion of Elijah Muhammad and instead created a devotion to Betty that was not included in Malcolm's own telling of his story. Romantic devotion rather than spiritual devotion played better to 1990s audiences.

C. HALEY. Where Lee created the character Banes and expanded the character Betty, he ignored important characters, particularly Malcolm's siblings and Alex Haley, the ghost writer of Malcolm's autobiography and author of the 73-page epilogue at the end of the book. Haley indicated a close personal relationship between them that occurred during the last two years of Malcolm's life when he was dictating the book to Haley. Lee used numerous quotes and passages from the epilogue of the book without acknowledging Haley's presence in Malcolm's life.

Malcolm told Haley, "We had the best organization the black man's ever had -- niggers ruined it!"18 and Lee used that line in a telephone conversation with Betty. Haley said, "He let himself be photographed in his home holding an automatic carbine rifle..."19 and Lee expanded that passage into a scene showing Malcolm's use of guns for self-protection near the end of his life.

During his demonstration of bravado for his fellow robbers in the book, Malcolm said, "I pulled out my gun, shook out all five bullets, and then let them see me put back only one bullet. I twirled the cylinder, and put the muzzle to my head. ...I told them "Never cross a man not afraid to die.""20 Later he confessed to Haley that he had palmed the bullet but instructed him not to put that in the book. "Too many people would be so quick to say that's what I'm doing today, bluffing."21 Haley included this piece of deception in his epilogue, and Lee showed Malcolm revealing the palmed bullet, thus adapting the version in Haley's epilogue rather than the one Malcolm chose for the body of the book.

Haley said in the epilogue that toward the end of his life Malcolm told him over the phone, "...the more I keep thinking about this thing, the things that have been happening lately, I'm not all that sure it's the Muslims. ...I'm going to quit saying it's the Muslims."22 In the movie, however Malcolm told Betty over the phone that the Nation of Islam was not behind all the actions, and the following scene showed a room of surveillance equipment, presumably government men. Again, Lee expanded Betty's role in the movie and disregarded Haley.



Lee regularly rearranged characters and the events in the book, using artistic license, yet he maintained the integrity of the message in the book. Malcolm said, "I think, I hope, that the objective reader, in following my life--the life of only one ghetto-created Negro--may gain a better picture and understanding than he has previously had of the black ghettoes which are shaping the lives and the thinking of almost all of the 22 million Negroes who live in America."23 Lee maintained Malcolm's message of illustrating the effect of racism on his life, but he expanded it to illustrate the contemporary impact of Malcolm's life. In the opening scenes racial riots showed that racism still exists in America. The movie "...begins Patton-like, with a full screen of the American flag, the intoning voice of Washington, [using Malcolm's lines, "I charge the white man with being the greatest murderer, the greatest kidnapper, the greatest robber, the greatest enslaver ...."24] intercut with the footage that lit the fuse to the LA riots -- the videotaped beating of Rodney King. As the clubs swing, and the flag begins a burn into an X."25 Malcolm wanted his story to be told to have social value, to tell the story of "...the racist cancer that is malignant in the body of America..."26 and Lee was true to this goal of Malcolm's using his own genre in his own way.

Malcolm's story ended right before his death, but both Lee and Haley had their own very different epilogues. Haley discussed the process of creating the book and the events immediately surrounding and following Malcolm's death. Lee used his epilogue to illustrate Malcolm's effect on the world after his death. He showed actual filmclips of Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mantelet, the real Malcolm X preaching, Jackie Robinson, Jesse Jackson, an Olympic raised fist for Black Power, Ossie Davis, and a scene of young proud boys (no girls) of color (not all black), in a classroom learning about Malcolm, standing and declaring "I am Malcolm X!"27 He implied in this scene that Malcolm's influence extended beyond black males to include other males of color, though apparently not females, and that Malcolm was an "integral part of the scaffolding that supports a contemporary African-American identity."28

Malcolm devoted a large portion of his book to that short period of his life, the trip to Mecca and the subsequent conversion during his last year, and Lee did likewise in the movie. The white press downplayed this important aspect of his life, then and now, concentrating instead on his hate message, as Malcolm had predicted: "...the white man, in his press, is going to identify me with "hate."29 Americans celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., Day but not Malcolm X Day.


Where the movie was only three hours long, although long by movie standards, in that time Lee attempted to tell the story of a 473-page book, so his rearranging the chronology and condensing and overlapping the characters' lines and roles is understandable and justifiable. In most instances, Lee was either very literal and true in his adaptation of the book to movie format, and where he wasn't literally accurate, he preserved the spirit and meaning of Malcolm's message.

Lee told Malcolm's story much as Malcolm himself told it to Alex Haley. He showed most of the significant events with recognizable agreement to the book, including additions from Haley's epilogue. Even the time allotted to the different parts of Malcolm's life corresponds similarly in both the book and the movie; material from all seventeen chapters of the book appeared in the movie, albeit in somewhat different order and with alterations to characters. Lee used of artistic license convey Malcolm's message in his own medium of cinema, such as translating Malcolm's references to expecting a violent end like his father to a vision of being run over by a train -- as his father had been.

Although Lee's version of Malcolm's story was in strong agreement with the book, Malcolm's distinctive manner of communicating his message was diminished by both Haley and Washington. The consistency of style of writing in the autobiography and Haley's epilogue confirmed that the autobiography was assuredly "as told to" Haley. This direct quote from Malcolm's "On Revolution" embodies his passion and intensity: " peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery."30 Likewise, Washington's Malcolm was impressive until the final moments of the movie when Lee used real filmclips of Malcolm, and then the contrast between Washington and the real Malcolm was apparent. Malcolm's very carriage and body language exemplified a passion and intensity of purposeful life that very few humans attain, and Washington did not convey. Both Haley and Washington did an admirable job of communicating Malcolm's intensity -- until their versions were compared side by side with Malcolm himself.

Lee used artistic license liberally to translate the book into the alternate genre of cinema, but he maintained the spirit of the message, namely that Malcolm's experiences as a black man in America led to his life's purpose of "...expos[ing] any meaningful truth that will help destroy the racist cancer that is malignant in the body of America..."31 Those were the final words that Haley attributed to Malcolm, Haley's summary of what Malcolm's life was about, and Lee's film supported that conclusion.


1 Gerald Horne, "Myth and the Making of Malcolm X," American Historical Review 98 (1993): 441.

2 The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973) 38.

3 Lisa Kennedy, "Is Malcolm X the Right Thing?" Sight and Sound 3 (1993): 9.

4 The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973) 22.

5 Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee, perf. Denzel Washington, 1992.

6 The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973) 56-57.

7 Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee, perf. Denzel Washington, 1992.

8 The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973) 292.

9 Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee, perf. Denzel Washington, 1992.

10 The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973) 292.

11 The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973) 292.

12 The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973) 173-174.

13 The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973) 173.

14 The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973) 34.

15 Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee, perf. Denzel Washington, 1992.

16 The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973) 297.

17 Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee, perf. Denzel Washington, 1992.

18 The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973) 418.

19 The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973) 429.

20 The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973) 146.

21 The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973) 423.

22 The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973) 438.

23 The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973) 386.

24 Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee, perf. Denzel Washington, 1992.

25 Kennedy, 9.

26 The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973) 389.

27 Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee, perf. Denzel Washington, 1992.

28 Horne, 448.

29 The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973) 389.

30 Malcolm X "On Revolution" in America Since 1945, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991) 191-192.

31 The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973) 389.

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