Betty & Coretta features Angela Bassett as Coretta Scott King and Mary J. Blige as Betty Shabazz. The Lifetime Original Movie premiered Saturday, February 2 in the US.
The first voice we hear in Lifetime’s Betty & Coretta is that of President Obama at the unveiling of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s memorial in Washington. This is our starting point: the celebration of Dr. King by a government that he called “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”
In Betty & Coretta, however, King’s chief accusation of violence falls upon Malcolm X. King even blames Malcolm for Malcolm’s own assassination, as “Nothing good ever comes out of preaching violence.” The Lifetime movie preserves the image of Malcolm as a bloodthirsty radical while seeking to rehabilitate him of what it treats as his past fanaticism.
This strangely requires that Malcolm be depicted as both more and less “extreme” than he was, based on a division of the man into two distinct and diametrically opposed characters: Early Malcolm and Real Malcolm. Neither Early Malcolm nor Real Malcolm are “real.” They are both fabrications that serve to oversimplify a complex human being. Early Malcolm was the Nation of Islam minister who apparently made all kinds of irresponsible statements and espoused violence. Real Malcolm is the later version, having gone to Mecca and disavowed all the militant things that we are told he said. When Early Malcolm finally learned to love white people, he matured into Real Malcolm. Unfortunately, as Betty tells us, Real Malcolm did not live long enough to communicate his new ideas or escape the shadow of Early Malcolm. In the film, Betty complains of “radicals” who misappropriate Early Malcolm in the name of revolution, specifically mentioning the Black Panthers.
Coretta tells Betty that an unidentified “they” may have killed Martin and Malcolm, but “they” did not kill their ideas. If that is true, then this film is working on finishing the job. Early Malcolm is treated as a raving maniac, represented most powerfully not in images of Early Malcolm himself but the man who took his spot in the Nation – Louis Farrakhan. Farrakhan, in this telling of the story from Betty's perspective, was chiefly responsible for Malcolm’s death. When we see Farrakhan with his bow tie and painfully disciplined posture, pointing his finger and damning his enemies, this is meant to show us the hateful world that Early Malcolm left to become Real Malcolm. As Betty tells us, Real Malcolm was growing and evolving – but what did he stand for, if not revolution? Education, we are told. Knowledge. Empowerment. Pride. Apart from a brief reference to his pursuit of United Nations intervention in American racial oppression, Betty & Coretta fails to indicate that Real Malcolm wanted much more than for black people to have better self-esteem.
It’s not that the film is exactly wrong in highlighting the importance of education in Malcolm’s public mission or his own biography. After all, Malcolm’s transformation from a convicted burglar into an international icon of the freedom struggle began with a transformation of consciousness, famously illustrated in his narrative of copying out an entire dictionary by hand and straining his eyes to read in poor prison lighting. The problem is that Betty & Coretta leaves out the political consequences of Malcolm’s self-education. Malcolm did have ideas, as we are told in the film, but the film has no interest in treating them as meaningful. We are only instructed to ignore Early Malcolm and look instead to Real Malcolm, the Malcolm of education and knowledge and empowerment and pride.
If Early Malcolm was a problem for Real Malcolm’s public image, Betty & Coretta does not help. The answer is not to neutralise Malcolm X the evil-demagogue, NOI minister with a counterimage of a moderate-liberal El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz hugging white people in the desert and apologising for having ever been offended by racism. This is an injustice to both versions of Malcolm. The Nation of Islam strongly opposed violence as a political solution. For Elijah Muhammad, black liberation was to be achieved not by an armed uprising against the state or a race war in the streets, but rather a rebuilding of black families, communities, and economies toward an eventual goal of political self-determination.
None of that matters, because the media in Malcolm’s own lifetime portrayed him as reckless and radical, and Betty & Coretta perpetuates that image. After she meets Malcolm for the first time, Coretta visits her husband in jail, and promises him that Malcolm has matured. She tells Martin that Malcolm even “changed his name,” that he’s “softening,” and “could come around.” King skeptically answers, “I sure hope you’re right.”
Betty & Coretta could never tell it like this, but in the real world the more revolutionary version of Malcolm is actually Malcolm after he breaks with the NOI. This is the Malcolm who seeks new opportunities for political action in the United States, as well as closer ties between African Americans and liberation movements around the world. It was post-Mecca Malcolm who said “the ballot or the bullet,” both of which were rejected by Elijah Muhammad. We could argue that in the Black Power era following Malcolm’s assassination, the clear distinction between Early Malcolm and Real Malcolm did not exist for everyone. His NOI-era condemnations of white devils and his increasingly global post-hajj politics remained equally useful.
Not long before his death, when asked about his evolving position on white people, Malcolm answered, “I haven’t changed. I just see things on a broader scale… Now I know it’s smarter to say you’re going to shoot a man for what he is doing than because he is white.” The brotherhood that Malcolm experienced in Mecca did not let white Americans off the hook. Malcolm believed that whites should be given a chance to clean themselves up, but he did not expect them to take it.
Malcolm was a freedom fighter. His vision was political and economic black nationalism. But this is commonly washed away to make the central point of Malcolm’s journey that he ultimately found Real God and realised the error of black people being angry at white people. Because Malcolm left the NOI, many of us wish to be exempted from having to hear his NOI voice on its own terms. We refuse to confront the words of 1960 Malcolm without 1964 Malcolm holding our hands. But even that 1964 Malcolm is a myth. The Real Malcolm character is a watering down of Malcolm by mainstream representations such as Betty & Coretta that have no other means of treating his life with sympathy, as well as by Muslims for whom the vast majority of Malcolm’s career as a Muslim leader takes place within a sectarian community that they cannot take seriously. To be rendered safe for politically responsible white liberals and theologically conservative Sunni Muslims, Malcolm must be turned against himself. Hence, the battle of Early Malcolm vs. Real Malcolm that Early Malcolm cannot win.
Betty & Coretta leaves us with the comfort that in sanitised, harmless forms, both Malcolm and Martin receive their recognition from the state: Malcolm on his postage stamp and Martin with his federal holiday. As illustrated by the black president in the movie’s introduction, speaking at King’s new memorial, everything is now perfect, God’s kingdom has arrived, and we apparently don't need Malcolm, Martin, or their ideas – just their faces.
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