The subject of a Pulitzer Prize winning biography in 2012 and one of the four pioneering civil rights figures portrayed in the recently released One Night in Miami, Malcolm X, a man famous for his outspoken opposition to American empire, has reached a level of cultural relevance glimpsed by only a select few political figures. With such universal name recognition (and controversial pedigree), is it a surprise, then, that a proposed screening of the film, Malcolm X, drew the ire of students at a military academy, leading, ultimately, to the cancellation of the event?
The screening, hosted by the actor William Jackson Harper and the organization Arts in the Armed Forces (AITAF), began by allowing for students at four military academies to choose from three movies: Orsen Welles’s Citizen Kane, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. All four academies went on to choose Malcolm X, and everything was seemingly well underway until one of the academies chose to back out at the last minute. When asked why, they cited the Trump administration’s (now defunct) executive order, which did, notably, state that “Uniformed Services should not teach our heroic men and women in uniform the lie that the country for which they are willing to die is fundamentally racist” (the order can be read in full here).
It’s at this point that things become a little hazy: the military academy in question has remained unidentified, making it even more complicated to ascertain whether or not its students would have been subject to Trump’s executive order in the first place; only four military academies (“military academy” being a broad designation which refers to many schools, both public and private) have students who are simultaneously members of the military upon enrollment (and therefore have waived their rights to free speech). These complications are, of course, compounded by the fact that many students who attend high school don’t really have free speech rights, at least as they are conventionally understood.
We’re left with some unanswered questions, to say the least: Why did the academy, which had initially voted to screen the film, change its mind? Were administrators at the academy earnestly afraid of retribution from the then president’s administration? Or, alternatively, was the executive order merely a convenient excuse to drop the event in the face of intense pressure from a vocal portion of the student body?
Let’s assume that this particular military academy was, in fact, beholden to the Trump administration’s executive order. The real question thus becomes the following: should servicemen and women be exposed to material some might deem anti-American? There are two answers to this question: the first, which addresses the specific case of Malcolm X, and the second, which appeals to the universal right to free speech usually espoused by those on the political right, but seemingly abandoned in this case.
Firstly, Harper’s surprise at the fact that “the film Malcolm X could be considered ‘anti-American,’’ as he expressed it in his statement, rings a little naive. The film, afterall, does spend a considerable amount of its runtime exploring Malcolm X’s time within the Nation of Islam, a Black Nationalist organization whose central tenets include the assertion that the United States is an irredieamly racist country. To deny Malcolm X’s anti-American sentiments (as well as to paper over his vocal denunciation of the efforts by Martin Luther King Jr. and others to win legislative victories within the American system) would be to ignore his lived reality. A much more salient route of defense, in my opinion, would have been to point out how the film, to the chagrin of many radicals, ends with Malcolm X as a reformed militant. Surely, members (or future members) of the military would see no harm in a film in which the entire point is that the protagonist turns away from his long-standing hatred of other races.
Secondly, I would like to point out the great lengths the political right has gone, in recent years, to attack what they call “cancel culture.” Trump certainly had his own fair share of brushes with the topic. Does this effort to further limit the speech of the servicemen and women not constitute, on the part of the Trump administration and the conservative right more generally, a renunciation of principles they seem so ready to invoke when it’s politically expedient? When future administrations approach the topic, perhaps partisan politics should play a limited role; it seems a tad bit hypocritical to praise the lengths to which military personnel go (and will go, in the case of military academy students) to defend our principles abroad while, at the same time, restricting their rights at home.
Michael Kirby is an Assistant Professor/Reader Services Librarian at Kingsborough Community College. He received his MLS from Queens College, the City University of New York and serves as the 2021-2022 Publications and Communications Chair of the Intellectual Freedom Round Table.