Malcolm and Martin come to the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival

[To enhance the reading of this review, I suggest you play this classic in the background.]

A couple of new films on the lives of two of the most prominent figures in the civil rights movement, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, were released at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Although the two shared divergent approaches to fighting injustice, one non-violent, the other “by any means necessary,” they both shared the same fatal outcomes—heavy surveillance leading to eventual assassination.

In the filmic adaptation of the brilliant Broadway one-act play, One Night in Miami, playwright and screenwriter Kemp Powers offers a fictional scenario of that private historic 1964 powerhouse gathering of four Black icons: revolutionary preacher Malcolm X, footballer/actor Jim Brown, R&B artist Sam Cooke, and Cassius Clay who soon became the greatest boxer in the world, Muhammed Ali!

It’s exhilarating to experience their intense interactions of love and respect, especially between Malcolm and Ali, as Ali was transitioning into a new Muslim identity and disavowing the Vietnam War, and Malcolm was heading to his break with the Nation of Islam, leading to his tragic assassination one year later. Also, Cooke’s Change Is Gonna Come was a few weeks from release, delivering on its title an anthem of struggle that would deeply affect the whole culture.

A stunning cast brings these legends to life, but no question that Eli Goree embodies the amazing Ali, his moves, speech pattern, and looks. Malcolm’s leadership and influence on Ali are first questioned by the others, as they begin to develop a better understanding of Islam. The assigned NOI guards protecting X outside the door at the Hampton House in Miami, while amazing history develops inside, is reassuring at first, but forebodes the fatal day when Malcolm’s guards failed him.

As for Malcolm’s eventual assassination, Netflix’s Who Killed Malcolm X and the thorough investigation by journalist Abdur-Rahman Muhammad pretty much cleared the air of doubt on who was responsible for the death of one of the most beloved political orators of all time.

The prolific actress Regina King, whose career started years back with Boyz in the Hood (1991) and more currently in the award-winning drama, If Beale Street Could Talk and the hit TV series Watchmen, directed this award-winning theatrical adaptation. The story twists and turns and keeps the viewer attentive to the end, making such an impression on the festival viewers that it won the TIFF People’s Choice Award.

Surveillance and harassment

The new documentary MLK/FBI touts itself as “the first film to uncover the extent of the FBI’s surveillance and harassment of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” Although most of the information is probably already known by readers of this paper, the doc organizes all the data in a compelling manner, using current interviews with the likes of FBI Director James Comey (who understatedly admits this was the darkest chapter in the Bureau’s history) and the director himself, Sam Pollard, who offers new insight on the subject.

Samuel D. Pollard is on a definite roll with a succession of powerful docs on Sammy Davis, Jr. (I’ve Gotta Be Me), Atlanta’s first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson, Jr. (Maynard), Mr. Soul: Ellis Haizlip and the Birth of Black Power TV, not to mention that he started his directing career with Eyes on the Prize!

The film reveals to what extent the FBI—and its longtime director J. Edgar Hoover personally—went to undermine and discredit the Nobel Peace Prize winner by exposing his personal life, extramarital affairs, and an alleged rape (which was eventually discredited). It’s been known that Robert Kennedy authorized wiretaps on King, and Hoover pressured and harassed King about what he knew, hoping to drive King mad and eventually commit suicide. The famed comic Dick Gregory is quoted in the film as saying, “If you’re black and not slightly paranoid, then you’re sick.”

But it wasn’t only MLK’s determination to fight racism and bring justice to African Americans that obsessed Hoover. Beyond that, what many people forget today is that he was deeply critical of our whole social system and that he was influenced by many on the left including communists. The doc points to CPUSA member Stanley D. Levison as being the pivotal figure in exposing King to socialist/communist ideas. It was King’s often overlooked 1967 speech at Riverside Church one year to the day before his eventual assassination that clarified his anti-war stance and enraged Hoover and the anti-communist establishment. He realized how sick this country was and he couldn’t slow down. He was a major threat to the administration’s policies and lost the support of President Johnson, which set him on the fateful track that he ultimately shared with Malcolm X.

In the days before he died in Memphis, he grew concerned about the diminishing rights that Americans had to protest, especially when it was not only against racism but the sociopolitical system, as he expressed in his support of the Poor People’s Campaign.

Although there’s just as much controversy over why it was done and who did it, the facts of the MLK assassination are clearly laid out in the investigative study by attorney Dr. William Pepper in his book Orders to Kill: The Truth Behind the Murder of Martin Luther King Jr. Pepper was a close associate of MLK and served as lawyer to King’s alleged assassin, James Earl Ray, also to Sirhan Sirhan, and many others including the King family themselves.

Pastor Martin Luther King was ahead of his time challenging the system, saying things like, “You must be crazy to think we can change the government by simply trusting in God alone.” His “legacy remains intact,” says the director, despite the public’s changing attitudes over the years about his life and work, (authorities once called him “the most dangerous Negro in America”). Without getting all the facts and knowing the whole story, it’s easy to misunderstand a complex activist minister who truly was committed to bringing peace to the world. And this film is an important chapter in gathering that vital information.


Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.