In his movie Malcolm X, Spike Lee depicts--but sadly undermines--an incident that significantly impacted the slain former leader of the Nation of Islam. In the barely three-second shot, Malcolm X (Denzel Washington), having just delivered a fiery college speech, is leaving the stage when a white female student momentarily blocks his path and asks what she, as a white person, can do to help improve racial relations. Malcolm tersely answers with one word--"Nothing"--and passes her by.
It is unfortunate that Spike Lee didn't, or couldn't, represent the full impact the incident that inspired this shot had on Malcolm X. Let's take a look at how deeply affected he was, in real life, by the white college student he rebuffed when she sought his advice.
Several times in his autobiography, Malcolm X brings up the encounter he had with "one little blonde co-ed" who stepped in, then out, of his life not long after hearing him speak at her New England college. "I'd never seen anyone I ever spoke before more affected than this little white girl," he wrote (p. 286). So greatly did this speech affect the young woman that she actually flew to New York and tracked him down inside a Muslim restaurant he frequented in Harlem. "Her clothes, her carriage, her accent," he wrote, "all showed Deep South breeding and money." After introducing herself, she confronted Malcolm and his associates with this question: "Don't you believe there are any good white people?" He said to her: "People's deeds I believe in, Miss, not their words."
She then exclaimed: "What can I do?" Malcolm said: "Nothing." A moment later she burst into tears, ran out and along Lenox Avenue, and disappeared by taxi into the world.
Then a young firebrand, Malcolm X railed against all white people, including "white liberals" who sought to integrate themselves in the struggles of black people. Add white cream to black coffee, he analogized, and you weaken it. But as he grew older, and especially after his life-transforming trip to Mecca, Malcolm abandoned such separatist views. In a later chapter, he wrote: "I regret that I told her she could do 'nothing.' I wish now that I knew her name, or where I could telephone her, and tell her what I tell white people now when they present themselves as being sincere, and ask me, one way or another, the same thing that she asked." (376)
Alex Haley, in the autobiography's epilogue (Malcolm X had since been assassinated), recounted a statement Malcolm made to Gordon Parks that revealed how affected he was by his encounter with the blonde coed: "Well, I've lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. . . . I guess a man's entitled to make a fool of himself if he's ready to pay the cost. It cost me twelve years" (429).
Malcolm X realized, too late, that there was plenty this "little blonde coed" could have done, that his response to her was inconsistent with what he, his associates, and all black people wanted to accomplish. Unfortunately, the three-hour movie fails to reveal the full significance of this incident in his life. That young lady from the Deep South certainly left quite an impression on Malcolm X.