By Sara Schieron
November 7, 2005 - 11:34 AM PST
Why did you chose to use dramatic re-enactments to deal with historical events?
That reenactment we used was from A Current Affair, and it was on in 1992 and dealt with the assassination. We did it that way because there is no footage of the assassination. We didn't have enough photographs to be able to handle the actual event. It was just a choice. I got the footage for free and it filled in certain gaps within the structure of the film.
You mentioned that the basis of the Nation of Islam is freedom, justice and equality. But isn't it a predominantly patriarchal, male-centered faith?
Yes, I suppose that's true, but there is a separate governance of sisters within the Nation of Islam. There is a separation of men and women but women still have their union of worship.
I certainly don't mean to ask you defend or explain the faith for me...
I see what you're asking, though. Freedom, justice and equality in this context really is meaning "for men" but, in the course of time, hopefully, more people will interpret their sacred texts so that they make more sense to science and reality and the modern age.
There's a running theme of recovery in the film. I ask about women in the faith in part because recovery has been so tied to feminist documentary. What value do you think is presented by a recovery of the sort you feature in the film? Do you feel by identifying the assassins we can put the proverbial "baby to bed"?
My main thrust... I wanted to be able to do the definitive story about the assassination and wrap it up and finish it off and put a ribbon on it and say, "There it is and that's history," and I think I got as close as anybody's ever gonna get because most of the people who are in the film are dead, including Benjamin Karim who passed just a few months ago. I talked to him in June, after he had a mysterious fall and went into the hospital and died. Jack Newfield died, James Fox of the FBI is dead, Professor Clarke is dead, William Kunstler is dead. Almost all of the these witnesses are gone and that is it. A lot of these guys were never involved in the 1966 trial with Butler, Johnson, and Hayer. They saw it happen but they were never called to testify. For a lot of these guys, it was the first they've spoken about Malcolm and February 21, 1965. And I've talked to Norman Butler - in the film, you see me with Johnson. Hayer was in a work release program and laying low and Butler was not on board, but we did interview Johnson, one of the convicted assassins.
You've called Malcolm X your hero. Could you talk about why you feel he's such an important presence in the nation's history? In your history?
I identify with Malcolm. I was involved in this organization that had a charismatic leader like Elijah Muhammad, who, in recent years, has done the same things that Muhammad did - marry teenage girls and impregnate them. In that I felt I saw what Malcolm was trying to do - he was trying to make it less one man's "cult of personality" and make it more a universal movement to affirm the life that Muslims have within. He got caught in a situation and fought against it and I pretty much had to do the same thing.
I testified in federal court against this individual 25 years ago. The case went to the supreme court. I don't want to talk too much because soon enough you'll be reading about it in the papers. This was a guy that was in the Super Max prison serving with Timothy McVeigh in Colorado. If you want to know about these guys, Google Tony Alamo. You can read, even in the last days, about what he's doing right now. Very similar to the charges Malcolm brought against Elijah Muhammad.
The five-year lawsuit which followed the film's distribution - are you at liberty to disclose the basis of that lawsuit? What did the film have to do with the suit?
This is a different lawsuit. It's public record. I was sued by Jefri Aalmuhammed. He sued me in federal court while he was suing Spike Lee. He alleged the same things against me as he did Spike Lee. He took out a copyright on Spike Lee's Malcolm X, said he was a co-director and co-writer and said Warner Brothers should pay up. He turned around and sued me in 1998, alleging when was the co-creator and co-director of Brother Minister and sued me in federal court, alleging all kinds of things, describing himself as an international ambassador of Islam. Warner Brothers fought him off for I don't know how many years. I fought him pro se in federal court and it was knocked out by Federal Judge Denise Coate in 2003 and it was an extremely difficult time in my life and a total betrayal.
Wasn't it Werner Herzog who said the dramas of the film always parallel the dramas of production? Your film is all about betrayal.
And betrayal I had. It took ten years of my life to get the Brother Minister DVD on the road. Twelve to thirteen years since the very beginning. And lawsuits are not pleasant, especially when you're defending yourself against a guy who says that you have stolen his film. On top of that, he's got the right last name to make an accusation like that. It took everything in me to fight him off and he still hasn't gone away. I guess that's the price of making this kind of film.
What do you mean he hasn't "gone away"?
He took out a copyright on Brother Minister unbeknownst to me in 1995. He took out a copyright on my film. That made it possible for him to sue me in federal court but I didn't find out he'd done this until 1998. The only thing that's interesting is, on his copyright, instead of putting my name on it, he put my DBA "Illuminati Entertainment Group" on it. So even though he's been thrown out he's still making noise that somehow his copyright is valid, which it's not. Even if it was, he can't stop the creator of the film with the copyright from releasing the film.
You talk about the climate around 1995 and the theatrical release of the film in your interview on the DVD, and you say it attracted a lot of attention to your picture. Did any of the attention aroused by the Qubilah Shabazz arrest refer to your film? You do implicate Louis Farrakhan in the assassination pretty specifically.
Yes. In a Washington Post article, Farrakhan spokesman Conrad Muhammad basically insinuates that I'm involved with the federal government. The Nation sued the Post for 4.2 billion dollars because the paper reported on my film's content and it was a federal case. They sued Rupert Murdoch and the New York Post for reporting on the doc... That case was thrown out also. It was not the day of the opening, it was the next morning that the Minneapolis FBI arrested Qubilah Shabazz for plotting to assassinate Farrakhan. She was goaded on by an FBI agent she thought was her friend.
Later in 1997, a more extreme tragedy hit the family when Qubilah's son, Malcolm, was involved in a fatal fire that took the life of his grandmother, Betty Shabazz.
Your distribution deal pays the family of Malcolm X a ten percent tithe on the money earned through DVD distribution. What made you decide to organize finances this way?
It's called a sadaqqa. In Judaism, it's sedaka, but I think it's spelled "sadaqqa" for the Muslim practice. Sedaqqa is freely given charity. Like a mitzvah. When you're dealing with a situation like this, you're talking about somebody's father, a loved one, and you're getting all of this info, and I don't know... I always thought it was the right thing to do. Nowadays maybe there can be some kind of... reaching out to Muslims in the greater world. Maybe there's a way of showing good will the way everybody in every culture understands it. "Here's a piece of the action." And hopefully, when people understand that the Shabazz family are the owners of the film, to some extent, they'll think twice before putting it in a machine and making a copy. Maybe they'll think, "If we buy this, it will go directly to the family of Malcolm."
Do you plan to use this documentary as outreach, and if so, how?
You know, whatever way it shakes out there. I'm trying to get this film qualified for an Oscar. At this point, my main concern is trying to finish this new film, Blues by the Beach. Hopefully people will understand where I'm coming from to some degree. If they want to know what I've done, this is it. I did it from an Islamic angle, not from any other take. Considering the fact I just did a film on Israelites' surviving suicide bomb... People will think I'm not in cahoots with the Massad. That's a joke.
You also went through quite a bit to make Blues by the Beach. You survived a bombing?
Yes. I was making a film in Tel Aviv and I got blown up. I started that film two months after that federal lawsuit was dismissed. I'm disabled because of that bombing.
Your film is about people who go through horrible experiences and great ones, and all the while, they stand by their belief that they're doing "the right thing." You're hurt and you've been through all kinds of hardship, and you're saying, you did the right thing. Do you feel that, in the end, this freedom and justice, and equality all worked out?
I will tell you that all the trouble I faced making Blues by the Beach - the hospitalization, the trauma, the pain - that was nothing compared to what I went through to make Brother Minister. And I'm glad I did it. It's at the point where it can walk on its own. I protected my copyright, I protected the witnesses against all comers and I probably will never see a nickel but it's there and it's a part of history and I have no regrets.
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"Members of the Nation of Islam got together and assassinated Malcolm X."
"And betrayal I had."
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teaches film studies, produces film shorts and documentaries, and writes for occasional journals and web sites.
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