Malcolm X goes mainstream tomorrow.
All of the other stuff that went before -- Malcolm's speeches and interviews, his essays and commentaries -- none of that compares with the sweep and power of a well-made movie. We may not like it, but hey, that's life. When people think of Queen Cleopatra, they picture Elizabeth Taylor. When they think of Moses, they see Charlton Heston. Movies define reality. Image is everything.
So when Spike Lee's epic motion picture opens tomorrow, millions of Americans, white and black, will get their first -- and most intense -- exposure to the man who was once the voice of the Nation of Islam. The man of controversy and contrast. Malcolm X the despised and the admired. Malcolm X the feared and the role model.
Historians can quibble over facts. For many of the rest of us, Malcolm X-ism begins tomorrow with what we see on the big screen.
Malcolm's widow, Betty Shabazz, has described her husband as "a man for all seasons," one whose meaning and message are often interpreted (and sometimes misinterpreted) according to the personal beliefs of the interpreter.
That appears to be the case. Some people see Malcolm as the hard-eyed revolutionary who stood up to the capitalist establishment and called upon black Americans to oppose white supremacy "by any means necessary."
Others see him as the philosophical partner to Martin Luther King, Jr. To them, Malcolm had the courage to tell colleagues in the Black Muslim movement that not all white persons are "blue-eyed devils." Some, he said, are "blue-eyed soul brothers."
A lot of people, particularly those who work with the young, have hopes that Spike Lee's movie will become a turning point for young blacks -- many of whom seem trapped by feelings of hopelessness and anger and self-hatred.
"Malcolm, perhaps more than anyone else, gave African Americans something to stand up and be proud about," says George Buntin, executive director of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"It all came out of that period," Mr. Buntin continues. "Rap Brown coined the phrase, 'black Americans.' James Brown gave us, 'Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud.' And Malcolm X said, 'Yes, you are black and, yes, you are the descendants of Kings and Queens and, yes, you can be great again with unity and discipline.'"
Says Walter Amprey, the city superintendent of schools: "I hope young people will see Malcolm's ability to overcome tremendous odds after what appeared to have been a wasted life and how he was able to turn that life around. Part of my fear is that people will focus on the old, firebrand Malcolm, the revolutionary, rather than the new Malcolm who emerged after his trip to Mecca."
Adds Charles Dugger, a Baltimore teacher and community activist: "Malcolm said, 'Education is the passport to the future. Tomorrow belongs to those people who prepare for it today.' That's what I hope our young people see in the movie -- that Malcolm was a man who valued education."
It troubles Mr. Dugger to think that young men wearing "X" sweat shirts and baseball caps sell drugs or turn to violence. "Obviously, they aren't getting the message about what Malcolm stood for. Hopefully, if they go see the movie, we'll have something to challenge them with, get them to think about the harm they are doing to themselves and to their own community."
But Roxcelanna Redmond, a city resident, warns against drawing too many lessons from a life that ended 27 years ago. "I'm not much into dead man worship," she says. "I prefer to look for living role models.
"I think people want to freeze Malcolm in time, focus on what he said in 1965, because they don't want to face the present or to grow. But if you look at Malcolm's life, he was in a state of rapid evolution, particularly in the last four years. He was constantly expanding his understanding, his analysis of situations.
"If we have to turn to a movie to learn anything," says Ms. Redmond, "I hope it would be that Malcolm himself would not be the same man today that he was 27 years ago."