The Smithsonian Channel and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) joined forces Wednesday to host the premiere of “The Lost Tapes: Malcolm X,” slated to air on the Smithsonian Channel on Feb. 26 at 8 p.m.
The iconic civil rights activist, née Malcolm Little, was assassinated Feb. 21, 1965, in Harlem at the Audubon Ballroom, which is fleshed out through the footage that comprises the film.
Filmmaker Tom Jennings of 1895 Films has made a number of such productions, which eschew narration for film and audio recordings to tell the stories.
”We do a series for the Smithsonian Channel called ‘The Lost Tapes,’ and in that series, all the films have no narration and no interviews,” Jennings said. “So we only use archival materials to tell the story. A lot of documentaries in the past have experts talking and they tell you what they think, and you may see 10 seconds or 12 seconds of the speech. Then they move on to another point with the narrator.
”In this film, you get to see two or three minutes of film at a time,” he said. “You feel like you are in the room. The film is intended to make you feel like you are in a time machine and you can go back to the early 1960s. You feel like you are sitting in the mosque in Los Angeles in 1962 when he went out there to make a speech about one of the Nation of Islam’s members who was killed there.”
Much of the footage used to produce the film came from Washington University in St. Louis. They had archival footage in their library, but only had a last name of the donor.
”We found color footage of early Nation of Islam meetings that had never been seen [publicly],” Jennings said. “We asked people where they thought it came from, and a woman said she thought it came from Elijah Muhammad’s dentist named Abdu Salaam who lived in Chicago.”
The filmmaker was unable to use any footage for which he could not get a license, so he called every Abdu Salaam in Chicago and was able to finally connect with his son, who had additional footage filmed by his father in the late 1950s that also had never been shown publicly. Unfortunately, they were unable to obtain a license for that footage that had been stored in his garage.
”The Lost Tapes: Malcolm X,” which took one year to assemble, also uses news tapes and other previously released footage to document Malcolm’s joining and ultimately leaving the Nation of Islam, as he went on to create his own organization, the OAAU (Organization of African American Unity), as el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz.
The premiere was the first in a series of nationwide screenings of the film prior to its television premiere, including a special event on Feb. 21 — the 53rd anniversary of Malcolm X’s death — at the National Black Theatre in Harlem, where his daughter, Ilyasah Shabaaz, is scheduled to speak.
Three of Malcolm’s six daughters — Ilyasah, Qubilah, Malaak Shabazz — were on hand, as was A. Peter Bailey, a journalist and author who worked with Malcolm X in his later years with the OAAU. The film attempted to elucidate the phenomenal rise of the civil rights and human rights activist with few added words. Those that were included in the film appeared as short remarks on screen intended to blend the various film and audio clips into one cohesive narrative.
Following the screening, a panel moderated by WUSA-TV (Channel 9) news anchor Bruce Johnson, joined by Jennings and NMAAHC curator Damion Thomas, attempted to deconstruct the making and interpretation of the film.
Evidently, from the tone of the comments and questions from the audience, the film still omitted many important facts about the iconic figure. But Jennings said it would have been physically impossible to address all of the facets of such an influential figure. Hours of film footage was left on the editing floor, and additional footage could not be used due to lack of permissible licensing.
Although this film, according to Jennings, was more of an introduction to Malcolm X for those unfamiliar with his life and achievements, it served as a reminder of his impact at that critical time in history when the issues of racial parity and equality were front and center in American society.
”Malcolm X gave us so much in terms of the advancement of people of color, challenging us to see our value, our heritage and our obligation to each other,” said City Administrator Rashad Young, representing Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office. “He vehemently advocated for human rights and forced America to see its inhumane treatment of African Americans. If you know anything about Malcolm X, you know he was smart, outspoken and unabashedly proud to be Black.”