“You’re not in Alabama — this is New York!”
With those words, Johnson Hinton and two passersby, all three members of the Nation of Islam (NOI), attempted to deter two New York City police officers from clubbing an African-American man on a warm, late April night in 1957.
Officers then focused their efforts on the three men, beating Hinton so severely on the head that he would suffer brain contusions and subdural hemorrhaging. All four men were arrested and taken to the 28th Precinct stationhouse.
Alerted by a witness, Malcolm X, chief minister at the NOI’s West Harlem temple, descended upon the jailhouse with a small group demanding Hinton receive adequate medical attention. After being taken to the hospital, Hinton was then once again detained by police. By evening, a crowd well into the thousands had surrounded the station as Malcolm X reportedly attempted to pay Hinton’s bail. Unable to do so and with the situation at an impasse, the preacher signaled for the masses assembled to disperse in an orderly fashion. They obliged.
It would be the first time the American public would become aware of the charismatic Muslim minister and controversial human rights activist, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little and later adopting “X” to signify his lost tribal name, serves as the subject of the latest installment of Smithsonian Channel’s ‘The Lost Tapes’ franchise.
The Lost Tapes: Malcolm X, which premieres during Black History Month on Feb. 26 at 8 p.m. ET across Smithsonian, recounts the activist’s story without taped narration, talking heads or recreation. Instead, the project relies solely on the strength of Malcolm’s voice, home videos, localized media broadcasts from the time, and audio tapes from illustrative radio newscasts.
“There’s such an authenticity to the real material,” Tom Jennings, founder of 1895 Films and executive producer on ‘The Lost Tapes,’ tells realscreen. “These archive-driven shows, if they’re done well, put you there in a way that even the best experts, authors, academics and witnesses can’t.
“They force the viewer to be part of the story.”
“The best of these films, in some ways, are history pieces but speak to a contemporary world today and resonate with the events that we’re experiencing right now,” adds David Royle, Smithsonian Channel’s EVP of programming and production, and an EP on ‘The Lost Tapes’, along with the channel’s John Cavanagh and Charles Poe.
Previous installments of ‘The Lost Tapes’ have covered the 1945 attacks on Pearl Harbor; the 1992 LA Riots; the murderous rampage of infamous serial killer David ‘Son of Sam’ Berkowitz; and the kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the domestic terrorist group the Symbionese Liberation Army, which ended in her arrest in September 1975. Forthcoming episodes of the franchise will touch upon the Vietnam War, NASA’s space program, natural disasters, significant political events and further notorious murderers.
In determining which subjects to tackle, Smithsonian and 1895 alike aim to cover a wide range of important events in American history that resonate in the modern day, and that have a bounty of previously unseen or disregarded materials.
“Tom looks for the footage that people have overlooked or have just not looked at carefully enough; the film that never made it into the news programs or documentaries but actually has a poignancy or added meaning with the experience of time,” explains Royle.
By obtaining the raw, original tapes and avoiding polished “highlight reels” typically supplied to producers and researchers, Jennings and his 1895 team have managed to offer new perspectives on subjects such as Malcolm X and Patty Hearst.
Searching for suitable footage typically begins by scouring the major archive houses such as Getty Images and the National Archive before moving onto local television and radio stations, as well as major news networks. From there, researchers track down experts and authors to mine them for deeper information with a series of off-camera interviews.
“For us to create these motion pictures from archive material, we need everything,” Jennings, a Peabody Award-winning filmmaker, stresses. “We want the stuff that people would think, ‘Why would you want to have that material?’”
With Malcolm X, Jennings’ Los Angeles-based production studio took the process even further. Through word of mouth, the studio was put in touch with Gene Simpson, a former freelance radio reporter in New York who happened to be in the Audubon Ballroom on Feb. 21, 1965. That afternoon would prove to be pivotal as Malcolm X was assassinated by three members of the NOI — striking him with 15 shots at close range — as he prepared to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
Splitting from the NOI and its leader, Elijah Muhammad, in February 1964, Malcolm X experienced a spiritual rebirth while on pilgrimage to Mecca. Increasingly disillusioned with the organization, he publicly renounced some of its teachings while embracing Sunni Islam until his death in 1965.
Though now living in Hawaii, Simpson had managed to preserve boxes of reel-to-reel audio tapes from that fateful day, wrapped in plastic and aluminium foil, in a humid storage locker on the island of Maui.
That Simpson held freelance status proved critical in allowing 1895 to move with ease in the licensing process, due to his wholly owned archive.
“The chain of ownership of these images through the years gets muddy after a while and we need to make sure that we’re buttoned up and everything’s spoken for within the context of the show,” says Jennings. “Every image, every sound has a piece of paper attached to it that allows us to show it in the way that we want to.
“It’s really [about] making sure that the person who’s licensing us the material is actually the owner of that material.”
The importance of discovering Simpson’s audio tapes is indicative of the vital role radio broadcasts play as a narrative tool within the entire ‘Lost Tapes’ series.
Since the films utilize zero written narration or interviews, Jennings and his team begin the editing process with audio as the spine of the story — from television broadcasts, radio programs or police dispatch tapes.
“We don’t lay anything down unless we have some kind of audio,” Jennings says. “Radio is something that a lot of researchers I’ve worked with in the past seem to forget about. Audio is king for us because the audio is, in a sense, our narration.”
1895 Films’ time consuming efforts seem to be paying dividends for the Smithsonian Networks-owned channel. Though Royle was initially concerned that archive-based programming could “feel old fashioned” and “particularly boring” to younger viewers, each ‘Lost Tapes’ installment that has aired in 2017 has performed well for the channel, with some skewing slightly younger (LA Riots) and slightly more female (Son of Sam) than Smithsonian’s channel average, according to the network.
“Our impression is that ‘The Lost Tapes’ appeals to a broader range of people than you get with some of the more classic recreation documentaries,” Royle says. “This rawness, this edginess that you get … appeals to the younger viewer as well.”
This article first appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.