New Netflix series about Malcolm X could reopen the case, 55 years after his death
Man who shot civil rights leader lived quietly in New Jersey for years, says documentary co-director
The co-director of Netflix's Who Killed Malcolm X? says the recently announced preliminary review into the death of the American civil rights leader is the result of the ongoing importance of his legacy, and the hold he still has on so many, more than half a century after his death.
"We've been astonished and delighted at the groundswell of enthusiasm and interest that this series has gotten. It's really been, I think, an affirmation of Malcolm's continuing importance and relevance," Rachel Dretzin told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.
Earlier this month, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office announced a preliminary review into the death of Malcolm X, in part thanks to evidence detailed in the new six-part Netflix documentary series.
"I think that while there's a lot of people who know who he is, there are not that many people who know much about him, about his life and certainly not about his death," Dretzin said.
Malcolm X was gunned down as he spoke in front of an audience at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City on Feb. 21, 1965 — 55 years ago this week.
Three men were convicted and imprisoned for his killing, but to this day, many people feel the case was mishandled — and that two of those three men were wrongfully convicted.
'An open secret'
The series primarily follows activist and amateur historian Abdur-Rahman Muhammad in his obsessive quest to answer lingering questions surrounding Malcolm X's death.
Muhammad's investigation led him to a Newark, N.J., neighbourhood where a man named William Bradley lived until his death in 2018. Rumours persisted that Bradley was one of three shooters that night at the Audubon.
"There were a lot of people in the city of Newark who we discovered knew that Bradley was rumoured to be the assassin of Malcolm, in some cases strongly believed he was, and just let it go," Dretzin said.
"I would say it was an open secret … certainly in black Muslim circles in Newark."
According to the New York Times, Bradley changed his name to Almustafa Shabazz and appeared in a 2010 campaign ad for then-Newark mayor Cory Booker.
Talmadge Hayer, who confessed to his part in Malcolm X's murder, named Bradley along with four other co-conspirators. But those four men "were never followed up on by law enforcement, [or] by journalists," Dretzin explained.
Hayer was convicted along with Mohammed Abdul Aziz and Khalil Islam; all were handed 20-years-to-life prison sentences.
All three were eventually paroled: Aziz in 1985, Islam in 1987 and Hayer in 2010. Islam died in 2009.
Aziz and Islam, whose convictions Dretzin characterized as being "based entirely on very spotty eyewitness testimony," maintained they were innocent.
"So in the documentary series we examine the possibility that those two men, one of whom is still alive, are innocent."
Reigniting interest with Netflix's reach
The Innocence Project, a non-profit organization that investigates possible wrongful convictions and miscarriages of justice, is working on behalf of Aziz during the new review of the case.
Dretzin notes that attorneys Barry Scheck and David Shanies pointed directly to Who Killed Malcolm X? as the reason behind reviewing the case.
But she added that many stories and theories presented in the series aren't brand new.
Watch: In January 1965, Malcolm X speaks on the CBC's Front Page Challenge
"It goes without saying, we are not the first people to claim that Aziz might be innocent, and to point the finger at four other defendants. Manning Marable, most famously in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography [Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention], made this argument towards the end of the book," she said.
"I think it speaks to the power of film and the global reach of something like Netflix that it's now really, you know, coming into the public awareness."
Were police complicit?
In addition to uncovering Bradley's story, Who Killed Malcolm X? also examines allegations that the New York Police Department turned a blind eye to intelligence suggesting Malcolm X was a marked man days before his death.
"Everybody knew Malcolm was going to be assassinated, and nobody knew better than the New York City Police Department," said Dretzin.
"We actually interviewed one of the chief detectives in their undercover unit, of the New York Police Department, who told us: 'Yeah. We knew Malcolm was going to be assassinated,'" Dretzin said.
In Who Killed Malcolm X?, the detective explained the NYPD's plan to offer Malcolm X protection for the Audubon event, knowing he would refuse.
"They didn't necessarily want to protect him, but they knew they had to offer. They documented that offer. And Malcolm predictably refused, because he didn't trust them," Dretzin added.
"And so it was a very complicated thing. Were they complicit? I would say yes."
Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Pedro Sanchez.