Netflixable? “Who Killed Malcolm X?” re-opens a case, points to some answers

In conspiracy buff terms, the 1960s were the “Rush to Judgment”decade.

Major figures in American political life were assassinated, and the FBI, the courts, the Warren Commission and local criminal justice systems seemed awfully anxious to wrap their cases up, nice and neat, and convince the American public that there was “nothing to see here.”

The Feb. 1965 assassination of Black Muslim civil rights leader Malcolm X, in a public speaking event with hundreds of witnesses, is the one murder that screams “COVER-UP” the loudest.

But half a century has passed. And while there have been revelations and moments where you’d think we’d demand more details, more damning “Who pulled the strings of those who pulled the triggers?” investigations, nothing has come of it.

But a lone Washington D.C. Muslim, whose day job is tour guide at Arlington National Cemetery, has made it his obsession and his life’s work to get at the truth. Abdur-Rahman Muhammad was drawn to Malcolm’s persona and his religion as a young man. And having ties to the African American Islamic community and the Nation of Islam has allowed him to open doors and get answers where others might not be so much as heard out.

But “Who Killed Malcolm X?” shows us how those questions haven’t been asked before because the police didn’t know or want to know. It points to the wrong men being railroaded into prison for the crime. And it levels its gaze at those who almost certainly were responsible, and the reasons they were able to avoid justice back in 1965.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow is here to attest to the bonafides of Muhammad as the world’s foremost Malcolm X murder expert, to verify Muhammad’s assertion that “the police did not take that seriously” either the threats to Malcolm’s life that week of his death, or the investigation afterward.

Other historians, experts on the movement and actual members of the Nation of Islam and alumni of its paramilitary arm, “Fruit of Islam,” either fume at police unwillingness to get to the truth, or more damningly, urge Muhammad to “Leave him alone, leave him alone” as he gets close to a long-hidden trigger-man.

The prosecutor, Herbert Stern, turns intimidating and testy with a filmmaker when asked why this witness, that cop informant, wasn’t questioned or why when the one man caught red-handed as he fled New York’s Audubon Ballroom insisted that the other two brought to trial for the crime and convicted were innocent, that he wasn’t listened to.

The surviving convicted killer, noting the strong Nation of Islam presence in his prison, allows that the inmates there let him live for a reason.

“If they’d thought I was guilty, I’d have been dead.”

The six part Netflix series takes a lot of tricks from teasing news magazine storytelling and reality TV’s pursuit of “cliffhangers,” which make one question just how close they came to interviewing this key figure or when exactly this major political name’s association with one of the accused is known.

But that drag-the-mystery-out (very “Dateline N.B.C.”) element allows for a lot of terrific historical background — Malcolm’s life, the career of Nation of Islam “Messenger” Elijah Muhammad, whom Malcolm broke with, and the context of that pre-CSI era in criminal detection.

We take trips to the NYPD archives to view color crime scene photos, and sample the incriminating collection of on-the-day TV news film, hunting for clues.

A clip that seared into my mind — Malcolm’s widow Betty Shabazz, who’d survived a firebombing at their house a week before and who has just seen her husband gunned down, glowering at questions from a white TV reporter.

The conspiracy theories erupted the moment the smoke cleared in that ballroom — police involvement, a white establishment (including the media) that didn’t want to know “the truth,” the Nation of Islam hastily circling the wagons to protect the real killers.

In this case, the conspiracy-minded were onto something, which Abdur-Rahman Muhammad is very close to completely unraveling in this series.

As retired cop Tony Bouza puts it at one point, “If you got the shooter, you better get the guy who sent him.”

3stars2

MPAA Rating: TV-MA, scenes of violence

Cast: Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, Akbar Muhammad,Muhammad A. Aziz, David Garrow, Tony Bouza

Credits: Directed by Phil Bertelsen, Rachel Dretzin A Netflix Original

Running time: 6 episodes @:42 each

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