With Spike Lee’s Malcolm X set to open Nov. 20, the rush to cash in on the legacy of the black nationalist leader has begun. Betty Shabazz, widow of the slain activist, owns the rights to her late husband’s name and likeness and has authorized Curtis Management Group to line up licensees for tie-in products. In addition, Warner Bros., the film’s distributor, has its own merchandising campaign. Along with the ubiquitous ”X” caps, T-shirts, and jackets, the products will reportedly include posters, key chains, wristwatches, buttons, drinking mugs, and refrigerator magnets.
The effort to sell Malcolm, who was assassinated in 1965, has set off a debate in the academic and African-American communities. ”This kind of commercialization,” says Victor Wolfenstein, professor of political science at UCLA and author of The Victims of Democracy: Malcolm X and the Black Revolution, ”underscores the problems and issues that Malcolm pointed to. But it’s characteristic of the system to co-opt all forms of protest. What’s unfortunate about that is that it pulls out the fangs from the politics.”
Other observers disagree. ”When he was assassinated, he was a big proponent of economic empowerment,” says Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Alvin Poussaint, consultant to TV’s A Different World and Here and Now. ”I think Malcolm’s primary concern would be the economic benefits that the sale of posters, T-shirts, and even coffee mugs could bring to the black community.”
Rap producer-entrepreneur Russell Simmons believes ”Malcolm X would probably support anything that tended to carry his message further. If his exposure on key chains and posters made his name and his thought more accessible to the world, I think he would have been in favor of it.”
While Shabazz won’t comment on the propriety of the campaign, she closely guards her husband’s name — not so much from misinterpretation as from profitable use by those who fail to pay a licensing fee. Several small apparel companies have already been slapped with lawsuits. Curiously, one merchandiser has been exempt from her suits: Spike Lee. The director, who employed Shabazz as a consultant to his film, has been selling ”X” clothing for about two years in his Brooklyn store and his boutique in Manhattan’s Macy’s, without benefit of licensing.
Why no legal action against Lee? ”This is not some Joe Blow off the street,” says Shabazz’s attorney, licensing expert Mark Roesler. According to Roesler, ”amicable conversations” between Shabazz and Lee will soon give the estate a cut of Spike’s profits. Lee did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
Meanwhile, some estimate of the scope of upcoming Malcolm X merchandizing can be seen in the publishing world, where more than a dozen books are being readied to cash in on the release of the film. They include the following:
*Three new editions of 1964’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X — as told to Alex Haley — as well as the first audio version.
*New histories, such as Remembering Malcolm, Malcolm X: The Assassination, Malcolm A to X, and The Judas Factor: The Plot to Kill Malcolm X.
*Collected writings including February 1965: The Final Speeches and By Any Means Necessary.
*Lee’s book, By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X.
This fall, for better or worse, ”X” marks the spot for profit.
— Pat H. Broeske, Chris Vaughn, Rebecca Ascher-Walsh