Op-ed: An Open Letter to the Producers and Directors of Who Killed Malcolm X?

Historians Jeanne Theoharis, Keisha N. Blain and Ashley Farmer on the exclusion of women scholars (and activists) in the six-hour series on Malcolm X:

We are writing to express our profound disappointment at the complete disregard of women activists and women scholars in the recent Netflix six-part miniseries Who Killed Malcolm X? directed by Phil Bertelsen and Rachel Dretzin, and produced by Shayla Harris and Nailah Ife Sims.

We believe that a series on the life and death of Malcolm X is long overdue and commend the directors for pursuing the topic. However, we are dismayed that a six-hour-long series on Malcolm X failed to include any insights from women scholars, and hardly any women activists make an appearance. The producers went to great lengths to include the perspectives of more than a dozen men—including many who have no expertise on Malcolm X and/or Black Power. Yet not a single woman scholar was featured in the six-hour series.

The exclusion of women scholars in the series is not only deeply problematic, but also presents a very skewed (and inaccurate) portrayal of this history. This is especially disturbing considering the fact that women scholars have long been at the forefront of producing scholarship on Civil Rights and Black Power. There is a burgeoning and proliferating body of work on the Black freedom struggle, the Nation of Islam (NOI) and Black nationalism. The show’s directors and producers clearly recognized this in their choice of a broad range of male scholars, whose work examines Black nationalism, the NOI, the Black freedom struggle, the role of the FBI and Malcolm’s own career.

A similar breadth of women scholars exists—scholars who study the NOI and African American Muslims, such as Ula Y. Taylor, Bayyinah Jeffries, Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, Dawn-Marie Gibson and Jamillah Karim; Black nationalism, such as Keisha N. Blain, Nishani Frazier, Barbara Bair and Natanya Duncan; Black Power and the Black radical tradition, like Ashley D. Farmer, Robyn Spencer, Dayo Gore, Mary Phillips, Jeanne Theoharis, Diane Fujino, Johanna Fernandez and Laura Warren Hill; the role of the FBI and other law enforcement, such as Beverly Gage and Heather Ann Thompson; and post-WWII Black New York, such as LaShawn Harris and Martha Biondi. The list goes on. And yet not a single woman scholar was included in a six-part series on Malcolm X.

The only women included in the series were his daughter and one female NOI member—despite the fact that in his later years Malcolm surrounded himself with and took counsel from numerous women, including Audley “Queen Mother” Moore, Vicki Garvin, Gloria Richardson, Yuri Kochiyama, Maya Angelou and his own wife Betty Shabazz. This is particularly egregious given that dozens of NOI, Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) and other male political figures were interviewed about the later period of Malcolm’s life.

The exclusion of these and other women drastically limited the framing of the assassination in the series and thus distorted the history of this important moment in history. For instance, perhaps the most iconic photo of Malcolm’s assassination shows Yuri Kochiyama, who had rushed to the stage to help, cradling Malcolm’s head on her lap.  Yet her story was nowhere to be found—even though Kochiyama’s notes were featured in the series.

In the last years of his life, Malcolm X had sought counsel from Gloria Richardson and praised her activism, most famously in his “Message to the Grassroots” speech. In addition, it was Richardson and her husband who were in the process of securing housing for Malcolm and his family after their home was bombed in Queens.

Also, that year, Richardson had been warned by members of the NOI not to appear on the same stage as Malcolm.  Richardson is still alive and speaks often at events—especially in New York City. Yet, incredibly, she was not interviewed.

The inclusion of women scholars—and the attention to the women activists who surrounded him—would have significantly strengthened the series. Among other things, it would have provided greater context for viewers to understand the evolution of Malcolm’s politics. 

In fact, one of the central questions of the series was: What made Malcolm so dangerous to the U.S. government? The answer to this question, in part, was his increasingly internationalist and radical ideas, as well as his evolving connections to global and local movement work.  

All of these aspects of Malcolm’s political thought and organizing were greatly influenced by the group of women who surrounded him in his final years. Many of the women scholars we have identified in this letter work on these topics, and would have been able to offer valuable insights for the series. Their exclusion ultimately weakened the scope, reach and larger message of the series.

We are asking for a commitment from Netflix, the directors and producers of the series to ensure gender parity in the experts used in historical documentaries.

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About , and

Jeanne Theoharis is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College, CUNY.
Keisha N. Blain is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of the multi-prize winning book, Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).
Ashley D. Farmer is Assistant Professor of History and African & African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.