Malcolm X: Independent Women?

In Malcolm X, Lee’s portrayal of women coincides with el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz’s legacy as a symbol of black manhood. The film portrays Malcolm’s spiritual journey in the Nation of Islam. As he grows, his conceptions of manhood shift with him. Still, Lee’s portrayal of his beliefs does not allow for the characterization of independent women. This actually diverges from the material from which the film was based from, Alex Haley’s autobiography of X, in this way. In the book, one of the most central characters throughout Malcolm’s life is his Aunt Ella. Ella Collins was his half sister who he first lived with when he moved to Boston, and would remain a pivotal figure. In his words, Malcolm characterized her as “the first really proud black woman I had ever met.” Later in his life, while Malcolm was experiencing financial troubles from splitting with the Nation of Islam, Ella would finance his pilgrimage to Mecca. I found it perplexing that this important detail was neglected in the film. It is crucial to acknowledge that the most transformative experience of Malcolm X’s life would not have been possible without the support of a black woman. It’s unclear if this was a conscious decision or a result of production limitations. It could be possible this was ignored because it would have shattered the conception of Malcolm X we have as a figure of black manhood and independence. Collins would leave the Nation of Islam, around the same time Malcolm did, to become an orthodox Sunni Muslim. After Malcolm’s death, she took the reigns of his organization and continued advocating for the civil rights of Afro-Americans. She died in 1996, in a nursing home.

Here is the NY Times’ tribute to her.

3 comments

  1. I’m glad that you brought this into our blog – it’s important to read against the grain of Lee’s representations/exclusions of women throughout his films. I find it particularly blatant here, when he disregards a real, historically important woman in a film that was over three hours long and would probably not have suffered from her inclusion. It would have complicated the portrayal of women in the movie, which perhaps he did not want, but I as a viewer would have greatly welcomed.

  2. Thank you for bringing in this really important narrative. It’s interesting to consider whether the decision was a conscious one, or as you point out, perhaps just a symptom of limitations. I sadly have to agree with Sasha, though. With such a lengthy, in-depth movie, and one that I had originally seen as all inclusive, it’s troubling that this important story would be left out. I had seen the film as one that battles standard narratives, but there seems to be a motivation to uphold a certain image of Malcolm. The fact that Lee mentions Haley’s narrative in the credits at the end further intensifies the problems of Aunt Ella’s absence. It’s incredibly common for strong female characters to be excluded from narratives in this way, and your post just further encourages us to consider what is missing from the stories we are typically offered.

  3. Again thank you for this information. I was never personally taught about Malcom X in school so the film was my education. I’ve been confused about his views on women as a result. I’m going to read Haley’s book now.

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