‘Who Killed Malcolm X?’ seeks justice while showing leader’s continued relevance
Malcolm X addresses a rally in Harlem in New York City on June 29, 1963. | AP

“There’s no statute of limitations on murder… There is still a chance to get justice for Malcolm.” — Abdur-Rahman Muhammad

Fifty-five years ago, the world lost an iconic leader. Muslim minister and human rights activist Malcolm X was gunned down during a public appearance in New York City on Feb. 21, 1965. In his 39-year life, he made a tremendous impact on the civil rights movement and the conversation around Black Liberation. The effect of his influence is still felt today, and a new Netflix documentary series wants to solve the mystery of his murder. The result is a multifaceted overview regarding the assassination and Malcolm’s legacy. Who Killed Malcolm X? gives viewers insight that goes beyond the mainstream narrative on this historic figure and ultimately leaves us with more questions than answers about one of the most tragic unsolved killings in 20th-century U.S. history.

Who Killed Malcolm X? is directed by Rachel Dretzin (Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise) and Phil Bertelsen (Through the Fire: The Legacy of Barack Obama). The miniseries follows the work of historian and Washington, D.C., tour guide Abdur-Rahman Muhammad on his investigative crusade into the assassination of Malcolm X. Each episode of the six-part series is 45 minutes long and goes into great detail concerning Malcolm X’s life and death. Combining archival footage and contemporary interviews, the series doesn’t treat Malcolm X’s legacy as an isolated part of history, but as an ongoing influence in the present day.

The series situates Malcolm’s assassination as not simply a footnote of the past, but as part of a larger piece of the puzzle in the struggle for Black Liberation under an oppressive political and economic power structure in the United States. Often, when looking at great historic figures, the story stops after their lives have ended. This series, however, clearly shows that Malcolm X’s story continued well after his death.

Viewers are presented with two timelines that interweave with one another throughout the show. The first is the story of Malcolm’s rise as a leader in the controversial organization Nation of Islam (NOI) organization and his eventual departure from the group to become a revolutionary human rights activist. This first story informs the second, which follows Muhammad’s ongoing investigation to discover new truths surrounding Malcolm’s murder. This makes for a documentary that is both informative and engaging, as it combines history many may already know with new details not previously made public.

The series is approachable for both those familiar with Malcolm X’s legacy and those who are not. At a time when inclusive school curricula are under fire by groups wanting to sanitize history, the series serves as a dive into a figure widely known but not always deeply explored. We’re not only shown Malcolm X the public speaker, but also Malcolm X the grassroots organizer. The series expounds on details that many of us didn’t learn in school, even if we might know the speeches or seen previous films on the topic.

Does the show answer the question of who killed Malcolm X? Not exactly. What we are given, though, is a thorough exploration of the many players involved in the iconic leader’s life and death.

This is where COINTELPRO—Counter-Intelligence Program, a series of undercover and, at times, illegal projects conducted by the FBI aimed at discrediting and disrupting radical political groups—comes into play. NOI and the well-documented FBI infiltration of the group are put under a microscope. The series challenges the long-repeated narrative that Malcolm’s murder was some sort of “black on black” intra-community crime. The initial idea pushed after his assassination was that members of NOI, jealous of Malcolm’s popularity and influence, killed him. The series tries to make sense of the web of players surrounding Malcolm, including the New York City Police Department, the FBI, and NOI.

Did the NYPD botch the investigation and refuse to dig deeper even when presented years ago with new evidence pointing to different assassins? Did the FBI have a more active role in orchestrating the death of Malcolm through the hands of NOI members? How high up did the decision to kill Malcolm go? These questions are presented, along with commentary by experts, witnesses, and historians who provide their theories. No strong conclusions are ever really made, but the point driven home by the documentary is that Malcolm X’s death represented a huge loss for humanity.

While viewers may not be presented with clear answers on who made the decision to have Malcolm killed, the series emphasizes the power of Malcolm’s legacy and the loss of potential that his murder represented.

At the time of his death, Malcolm was expanding his worldview beyond that of NOI as he talked more about liberation. He was seeking to ally with leaders he was once at odds with, such as Martin Luther King Jr.

He was speaking about the international struggle of the oppressed and the need for global solidarity across borders. Malcolm, with his influence and understanding, was set to be an even greater threat to systemic oppression and capitalism. His death was a huge blow to that movement, and the series makes it known that, for that reason alone, more attention needs to be given to finding out who deprived the world of such a leader.

Who Killed Malcolm X? is an informative journey and a thorough introduction for today’s generation of activists who are still dealing with the same oppression Malcolm devoted his life to fighting.

The series is currently streaming on Netflix.


Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.