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Customers from Wi-Fi. In Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with Fresh Air Weekend, one of the summer's hit films. Streaming, of course, is The Old Guard. Today, we talk with the director, Gina Prince Bythewood, the first black woman to direct an adaptation of a comic book. The movie stars Charlize Theron as one of a small group of immortal warriors who have died many times but keep returning to life.
Also, we'll talk about the revolutionary lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and how today's fight for racial justice owes each of them a debt. We'll talk with Peniel Joseph about braiding their lives together in his new book, The Sword and the Shield. Later, Justin Chang reviews the new documentary Boys State, about a week long program for select high school students in which they have to form their own representative democracy. Some of the program's alums include Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh and Cory Booker.
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One of the summer's big movie hits a summer with movie theaters closed is the Netflix film The Old Guard, directed by my guest, Gina Prince Bythewood. It reached nearly 72 million households in its first four weeks and is already among the top 10 most popular Netflix films ever. She's the first black woman to direct an adaptation of a comic book. The old guard is kind of a superhero film. When the film opens, we see several people lying dead, shot up with bullets.
But soon these bodies start moving. They eject bullets from their bodies, rapidly, heal their wounds and get back up. These people, the heroes of the film are immortals. They've lived for centuries, some dating back to the Crusades. Immortality may sound great. Who wouldn't want to live forever? But these immortals are warriors and they've been killed over and over again through the centuries. They experience physical pain and the emotional pain of watching friends and family die.
And they know that their immortality will eventually wear out. But they never know when. The first voice we hear in the film is The Immortal, played by Charlize Theron after she's been killed yet again on a mission. I've been here before over and over again, and each time the same question as I said. Well, this time be the one. And each time the same answer. I'm just tired of it, the plot of the old guard revolves around a young woman, a Marine who's killed in Afghanistan but miraculously heals and doesn't understand why the immortals find her and initiate her into the immortal world that she initially wants no part of.
Meanwhile, the head of a pharmaceutical company is trying to capture and study the immortals and figure out how to duplicate their DNA so that they can market immortality. Gina Prince Bythewood also directed the films Love and Basketball, about a young woman trying to be good enough to become a professional basketball player. And Beyond the lights about a singer who's pressured into creating her image around her sexuality. Gina Prince Bythewood, welcome to Fresh Air and congratulations on the new movie.
You know, I've been thinking about having a movie about immortality and the pain of outliving loved ones, having that release during the pandemic. I mean, you couldn't have understood the context that this would be released. And does it change or deepen the meaning for you of the film?
You know, it did. There were two things that, you know, became highlighted for me having this film come out now, it was, you know, both a pandemic and, you know, this certainty of how connected globally we are. You know, for me, one of the beautiful things about the script when I first read it and what I was excited to put into the world was that it was this group of warriors and different cultures and backgrounds and sexual orientations and genders that have come together to protect humanity.
And, you know, it just feels, you know, even more relevant. And then the other is this national reckoning that we're having in this moment, which I certainly believe is tied to the pandemic as well. But the how important it is to have characters like Nijole in the world, given how, you know, complicit, really, Hollywood has been in the images of black people that have been put out the the damage our humanity, as well as the invisibility, which does the same damage certainly of black women.
And so, again, to, you know, to have these images suddenly, not only here, but globally has been, you know, I think a really beautiful thing. And I hope, you know, has given people some inspiration or aspiration.
Niall is the young Marine who becomes one of the immortals, and she wears a cross. She believes in God. And Charlize Theron as character watches the young woman pray and basically says, yeah, you know, give up, God doesn't exist. And then when Nial, the young woman doesn't believe in the supernatural story about immortality, Charlize Theron says you already believe in the supernatural, meaning you already believe in a supernatural God. So you should be able to believe in this story of immortality.
How does that part strike you? How does that part speak to you?
It's interesting because that was something that I brought to Niall's character is her faith. And it really started with what I felt was truthful to this young black woman and knowing how important the church is in the black community. So I just felt real that she would believe in God. And that goes to, you know, when you when you take on a project and you take on characters to really do the work and really dig deep on who they are and and the truth of who they are.
So in adding that, then suddenly it sparks so many really good conversations with Greg and I about spirituality and about religion.
And Greg Rucka is the screenwriter who also wrote the book that the movie is adapted from.
Yeah, he the conversations were so great because he believes and it makes perfect sense of character, like Andy, who has lived for so long, would not be religious. She would not really have any faith and religion because she's seen the way, you know, religion has been used for thousands of years for honestly, for negativity and for evil and and the way that, you know, certain religious societies have really denigrated different people. And and then on a whole another level, the fact that when people saw that she couldn't die, you know, early on that she herself was worshipped as a God.
But she knows she's not a God. You know, to her, despite her immortality, she is just a person. And so she saw the hypocrisy in religion for so long that there's no way that she believes in that. And she wouldn't even call herself spiritual, that I think that reconnection to spirituality comes in meeting Nijole in her relationship with Nihil. But I just felt that that was a really interesting contrast between the two women. And again, everything that's happening to Nijole, the first thing she would do is try to connect with her, her spirituality and her belief in God to to try and understand the why.
But that's also why she doesn't stop asking why. Because of her faith.
Are you thinking any differently about life and death now after having made the film and having to think so much about life and death and immortality?
I've always been afraid of death ever since I was a little kid. It was just a thing that's always in the back of my mind. And so, so many times in my life, I have said I wish I could live forever because you just think about the courage that would give you all the things that you would do if you didn't have that fear. I mean, I have an incredible fear of flying. I have claustrophobia. So in doing this film, it was so interesting because early on there was some pushback in that some wanted to focus more on the aspirational aspects of immortality.
And I just think that that is what makes it interesting to talk about the opposite side of what we all envision immortality to be. And the thought of outliving everyone and the loneliness, I think, alone would be so hard to live with. But also, at what point does that you're just seeing the world just hurt itself on a loop and, you know, what would that feel like, especially if you, you know, have this ability where you think you can protect and save, yet you just feel helpless in that.
That just felt so interesting and real to me and did make me kind of question maybe I don't want to live forever now. I'd love to have immortality for, you know, a couple of years that I could, you know, jump out of a plane, which is something I've always wanted to do. But it really did make me think about having a finite end is actually a good thing.
I just think it's kind of strange. You have a fear of flying, but you want to jump out of a plane. I'll process that later.
I think so that I could get over the fear. But I think that's the wrong way to go. Yeah, it might be the wrong way.
OK. Was that ever your ambition to make an action film? Yes, I love I love the genre and I've always loved it. It's just the nature of Hollywood. You know, there was a long time where it was just the thing of I like action films, but I never thought I'd get the opportunity to make one just because those doors were not open at all to women. It wasn't even in the conversation. And it really wasn't until Patty Jenkins did what she did with Wonder Woman and had such success not only making such a good film under such incredible pressure, but the success of the film and that absolutely crack the door open.
Then suddenly this thing of, oh, I love those movies, you know, I turned into I want to make that movie and just putting that into the ether and now suddenly having, you know, specific path, OK, how do I get there? What decisions do I need to make to get to that place and really started doing that for myself.
Do you think that having directed basketball scenes in love and basketball helped convince people who needed to be convinced that you could create that you could direct fight scenes? You know what?
It was interesting in the meeting with Sky Dance, they were so impressed with how I got Sanaa Letham, who had never touched a basketball in her life, to look so good as a ballplayer in love and basketball. And they knew that this big action film with two women at the heart of it, it needed to have that same, you know, for lack of a better word, doneness. You had to believe these women as warriors and fighters. And so they felt because I could get that out of Sanaa, I I knew how to do that and felt like I could bring that to the two female actors that we cast for these two roles.
My guest is Gina Prince Bythewood. She directed the new film The Old Guard. We'll hear more of our conversation after a break. And film critic Justin Chang will review the new documentary Boys State, which won the U.S. documentary competition Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. I'm Terry Gross and this is Fresh Air.
Weekend black voters play a crucial role for any Democrat who seeks to win the White House. But some big divides amongst that bloc and some serious ambivalence could determine who is elected president this November. Listen now on the Cosulich podcast from NPR. Let's get back to my interview with Gina Prince Bythewood, she wrote and directed the films Love and Basketball and Beyond the Lights and directed the new film The Old Guard, which is now streaming on Netflix. It's about a small group of immortals warriors who have lived for centuries but have had to experience their deaths over and over again before coming back to life.
So I take it you've seen a lot of action films.
What do you like and not like about how and this is a generalization here, but about how women have typically been depicted in action films?
Because I'm thinking like sometimes there aren't any or there's very few of them, and sometimes the ones that are there are just very sexualized.
Yeah, and so when I say this and you said as well, I'm going to give a generalization, there have been anomalies throughout the years, very few, but they have been. But it is the female characters are not the center of the story. They're not integral to the plot or the climax. They are usually, if they do have superpowers, are sidekicks, um, or comic relief or do not have full arcs or stories. And the fight scenes, the costume, it is about sexualizing the characters and that whenever there's a, you know, a cool fight between two women, it always has to turn into the sexy cat fight as opposed to just these two women are warriors.
Let them fight this marvel at their athleticism. That's what excites me. And, you know, I know it's because I am an athlete and grew up an athlete and those were the women that I grew up with around me. And also there tends to be a thought that, OK, we cast this woman in this action role. Let's just design the fights. It doesn't matter that she's a woman. Let's just design the coolest fights as opposed to being true to what a fight with a woman would look like.
A woman does not have the strength to pick somebody up and throw them up against a wall like a man could. But there are different ways that a woman would fight and look cool.
What are some of the different ways you had women fight? You know, first I started with the true ways that they were taught to fight. So Niall is a Marine and there's a specific martial arts that Marines are taught in. The female Marines are taught. And so that's what we taught Niall, and that's what we designed her fights around. And she's the young woman. Yeah. Yeah. She's a young woman played by Kiki Lane. And, you know, with Andy Shirleys Thrones character, we she's a little different.
She knows every fighting style known to man because she's been around for so long. But, um, you know, we were very intentional on just the the conflict between them and making sure, again, that it stayed true to their strength, what they could truthfully do, even if they're stronger than most women. Again, they're not superheroes. They just have a supernatural ability to not die in some action films.
There's, you know, like two characters who might start as adversaries but fall in love or there's a will they or won't they kind of friction going on.
But in the old guard, the love story part is that two of the male. Immortals have been a couple for centuries, and they deeply love each other, and in one scene where they're kidnapped, one of the kidnappers basically says in a mocking way, what are you guys gay? And so one of the gay guys basically gives a long talk about how, yeah, we are. We've loved each other for centuries. His kiss still means everything to me, even after all these years.
And it's it's a pretty interesting scene for for an action film. So talk about that scene a little bit. Was that in the original book?
Yeah, that was in the graphic novel and then in the script. And it was just something I hadn't seen before and I hadn't seen characters like that before.
And, you know, I think, you know, there's a recognition. I think in what I bring the black female to my craft and in being a director and in recognizing how important it is that everybody deserves to be seen as a hero, given that I know how rare it is for for myself to look up on screen in these films and see myself reflected that way, it was the same for these characters. And I just felt that they were so different and so distinct and so badass and and their love just felt real and special.
What kind of reaction have you gotten to that scene? Well, it's not like you're in movie theaters with people because movie theaters aren't open now. But without generalizing too much, I don't know that the action film audience is the most like gay friendly audience in movie theaters. Is that to stereotyping there?
No, that's so it's insulting to say that because we had to before covid shut everything down, we had two audience previews of the film. So I actually got to see it in a theater with, you know, 250 people per screening. And, you know, they target an audience of people they think will see the film for the previews. And I knew there would be nothing to get me to cut that scene. But we did not know what the audience reaction was going to be at all.
And I remember sitting in the theater and as we were getting closer to the scene, just having what is the reaction? And he gives a speech and they kiss. And the audience erupted in applause, both screenings. It was such an amazing moment and surprising, I think, given our generalization of the audience. But it honestly was tied to I feel this this moment when we were shooting, after we'd finished shooting the scene, two different guys from the crew came up to me and said that they how much they loved the scene and that when they were watching, like they didn't see two men, they just saw two people in love.
And that, you know, I was like, wow, I think maybe we did do our jobs here because that's what they felt and that's what we wanted to feel. Love is love. I didn't actually know. But I guess there is a trope out there where when you have a often when there's a gay character in the film or a film like this, and foremost, it's never been this overt, it's always been hinted at, but that they die or their partner dies.
And I just again, I had no idea that that was a thing. And so many have spoke out about how happy they were and surprised that these two characters got to, you know, have a happy existence and a happy relationship and live lived to tell another day. So I want to talk with you a little about growing up, you were adopted by white parents. Tell us the story to the extent that you know the story of why your birth mother gave you up.
It's you know, it's it's a fascinating thing because you grow up with being told one story. And it was just I was I was told the story that, you know, her and my birth father loved each other, but they were young and they knew they couldn't handle it. And so they, you know, gave me up to, you know, for the good, the betterment of me. But the truth of it was in meeting with my birth mother that their.
Her her parents did not want her to have a black child and and I was very close to being aborted, which is just mind boggling to me. And it was the fact that she had a best friend who was really religious, who convinced her not to. And I've always found that fascinating because I'm I'm pro-choice. I mean. Incredibly pro-choice, yet here is an instance where I would not be in the world if it wasn't for, you know, this best friend convincing her of that, though, I have to believe there is a part of her then that, you know, wanted me to be in the world as well, because she did ultimately make that decision.
But, yeah, her parents are not going to let her have a raise, this black child.
And so I was giving up. So your biological mother is white and your biological father is or was black, I don't know if he's still alive anymore. Yeah, I don't know. Have you ever met him? Do you know who he is?
No, I tried to track him down and I have not been successful. She was easy, but he I have not been able to. So you didn't know the real story about why your biological mother gave you up until you found her and talked with her? Did your parents know the real story or did they just keep it from you or did they not know either? They didn't know either.
Do you think it's just as well that you didn't know that you didn't grow up knowing?
Oh, absolutely. It's I think it was because there's so much. When you're adopted, there's so many questions when you're little and it really keeps centering around, why were you given up? Why were you tossed away? You know, my parents were very good at making me believe I was chosen, but I still had those questions and that wonder of what what was wrong. Because how do you give up a child had to give up your child. So in this in creating this very positive narrative, absolutely help.
It didn't temper the fact that I had this urge and need to find my biological parents to know where I came from. And I didn't find I didn't find it till I was in my 20s. So I think I was better equipped to handle that as well at that age, as opposed to when I was a little. Was your biological mother, once you found her, interested in having a relationship with you?
Uh. It we had a very good first meeting, absolutely, but then it seemed to be too hard for her to I was a reflection of the past that was not that was difficult for her. So, you know, we haven't been in contact.
Do you think she knows that you're a very successful director right now? I like to think so.
That was the one thing that I found fascinating is when I met her, she was really into independent films, which I found interesting just because not everybody is. So I'd like to think that I would hope that she at least is aware of what I'm still doing. Gina, it's really just been great to talk with you. Thank you so much for talking with us and congratulations on the success of your new movie. Thank you, Terry. And stay safe and stay well to you and your family.
Thank you, Gina.
Prince Bythewood directed the new film The Old Guard, which is streaming on Netflix.
Want a glimpse into a potential future candidate for elected office?
Look no further than the new documentary called Boy State. It's about an annual event sponsored by the American Legion in which select high school students form a mock government. Boy state is now streaming on Apple.
Plus, our film critic Justin Chang has this review since they were founded in the 1930s by the American Legion, the Boys State and Girls State programs have been giving high schoolers a practical education in how government works. Students in every state are chosen to take part in a week long summer experiment in which they must form their own representative democracy. As we learn from the opening credits of the terrific new documentary Boys State, Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh and Cory Booker are just a few of the program's famous alums.
The film, directed by Amanda MacBain and Jesse Moss, focuses on the Texas Boys State event that took place in June 2018. We see the roughly 1200 hundred participants arriving in Austin, where they are randomly divided into two political parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists. Those names carry no agenda. It's up to both parties to hammer out a platform, choose their leaders, and then run against each other. In a week long election campaign, MacBain and Moss throw us into this mock government exercise without much preamble or explanation of the rules of the game like politics itself.
The action can be a little confusing. Unlike politics, it's never boring, mainly because the movie wisely focuses on a select few participants. Either the filmmakers were extremely lucky in their choice of subjects, or they shot so much footage that they were able to isolate the most compelling personalities. In any event, the four young men we spend the most time with all end up playing key roles in the experiments nerve racking outcome. The most ambitious of the bunch is Ben, the Federalists party chair, who's willing to do anything to win votes, including smearing the nationalists on social media.
Ben is politically conservative. He has a Ronald Reagan action figure to prove it, and he despises what he sees as the liberal tendency to divide people along lines of race, gender and disability. Ben speaks from some personal perspective. He lost both his legs to meningitis when he was three. The chair of the Nationalist Party hails from the opposite end of the political spectrum, a progressive black teenager originally from Chicago. Renee knows he stands out in this mostly white conservative Texas field.
He also stands out on merit. He has a seasoned politicians command of rhetoric and can deftly outargue any opponent. But he's also capable of calling for party unity, as he does in an early speech.
My grandmother told me a few things. You have to have faith, hope and a bit of a pissed off attitude.
I want to be civil and represent a whole working body, and we're going to take the example of a plain body, it has two wings, a left one and a right one. We're not going to pick one. We're going to stay in the middle because we are not an intolerable party. We're one that is palatable to all. And so as long as we're able to keep this plane afloat with a healthy right wing and a healthy left wing, we have the ability and the capability to pummel any federalists into the ground because we are the only party that's worth voting for, because it's this party that's going to represent every individual.
Vote for me through the state chair. If Renee has the sharpest mind and tongue in boy state, it's heart and soul belonged to Steven, a fellow Nationalist Party member, Steven becomes an underdog in the race for governor. The highest elected office, like Renee Stevens, stands out. He's the son of a Mexican immigrant and he counts Bernie Sanders among his political heroes. His humility on the campaign trail and his stirring honesty in front of a microphone proved irresistible to the crowd.
Again and again, he invites his fellow party members to tell him what issues are most important to them so that he can be a better, truer representative for their concerns. We see these young men debating a lot of issues, especially gun control. There's a lot of talk about protecting the Second Amendment, but there are also counter arguments from students like Steven, who have clearly been shaken by the sheer number of school shootings. Another much discussed issue is abortion, which leads to one of the film's most revealing moments.
A nationalist gubernatorial candidate named Robert, who's running on a strict pro-life platform, admits on camera that he's secretly pro-choice. Sometimes you've got to say what you've got to say in an attempt to win, he says. That's politics. Indeed it is.
And while the filmmakers are working from a mostly neutral fly on the wall perspective, their attitude toward the boys state program feels ambivalent at best, deliberately or not. The experiment seems to bring out a lot of the flaws of America's political system itself personal attacks, dishonest tactics and conflicts that hinge more on popularity than substantive policy debate. It's undeniably inspiring to see so many young men with bright, engaged minds. And the best of them, as we see from the end of the movie, have already gone on to impressive new accomplishments.
But it's also dispiriting that so many of them have already learned to view politics in the most cynical way possible as a game to be won by any means necessary.
Justin Chang is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times. He reviewed the new documentary Boys State. It's streaming on Apple Plus. Coming up, we'll talk about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King with Peniel Joseph, author of a new book about them called The Sword and the Shield.
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There is no way to understand the history, struggle and debate over race and democracy in contemporary America without understanding Malcolm X and Martin Luther King's relationship to each other in their own era and most critically, to our time. That's what my guest, Peniel Joseph writes. He's the author of the recently published book The Sword and the Shield The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.. Joseph says that the mythology surrounding their legacies typically portrays King as the nonviolent insider.
While Malcolm is characterized as a by any means necessary political renegade. It's King's I Have a Dream versus Malcolm's the ballot or the bullet. Joseph's book braids their lives together, looking at how the path they took in their fight against white supremacy and for racial justice diverged and converged. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. King was assassinated three years later. Peniel Joseph is the founding director of the LBJ School's Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas, Austin.
Peniel Joseph, welcome to Fresh Air. Why did you want to braid together the lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King?
Well, I've always been fascinated by Malcolm X and Dr. King, and the more I did research into the Black Power movement and I wrote several books about black power and civil rights, the more I was both interested in them and dissatisfied in how they're usually portrayed, both in books and in popular culture. They both fought for racial equality, but did they have different visions of the world they wanted to see? Well, I think they have convergent visions, but they have different strategies on how to get there.
So Malcolm X is really scarred by racial trauma at a very early age. King, in contrast, has a very gilded childhood, and he's the son of upper middle class African-American family, prosperous family that runs one of the most important churches in black Atlanta, Ebenezer Baptist Church. So Malcolm and Martin are shaped by both the historical circumstances that that are presented to them, but also by their own personal histories. So they both want these goals of of human rights and human freedom and human dignity.
But they're going to have different strategies and tactics, especially initially, on how to achieve that goal.
Compare their initial tactics when we think about Malcolm X, but Malcolm X is the most important black working class hero and leader and activist of the 20th century. And by that I mean that Malcolm is coming from the lower frequencies of the black community. He's born in Omaha, Nebraska, in nineteen twenty five. His mother and father are political activist followers of Marcus Garvey, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, their black nationalist and Pan Africanist who believe in radical political self-determination.
And Malcolm's father is going to be killed by white supremacists in nineteen thirty one in Lansing, Michigan. His mother is going to be placed in a psychiatric facility for most of his adult life. He's a foster child for several years, and then he lives with his older sister, starting at the age of 15 in Roxbury, Massachusetts. And really over the next five, six years, he's going to be engaged in both working menial jobs and participating in the underground economy, which means extra legal or criminal activity.
And in prison, he's sentenced to 11 years in prison. He's going to serve seventy six months between nineteen forty six and nineteen fifty two. He has an epiphany. He comes to believe in the Muslim religion as articulated by the Nation of Islam, which is really a religious black nationalist group that's coming out of the Garvie tradition of the nineteen teens and nineteen twenties. And he comes to believe that Elijah Muhammad, who's the former Elijah pool from Georgia, is actually the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, who's the messenger of Allah himself.
So Malcolm is going to transform himself in prison by nineteen forty eight, forty nine fifty and really become somebody who imbibes black history. He imbibes religious history, but he comes to have his own critique of both structural racism but white supremacy. And he's going to argue that what black people need is political liberation, that they craft themselves. So he comes to believe that the reason why black people are marginalized in the United States is because they have imbibed Western traditions, Christianity, and they refuse to look for the last place that they would ever look for their own liberation is within that.
Black people don't understand their identity. They think of themselves as Negro and not as black. They don't have a love or appreciation of African history. And so what Malcolm is going to do is become really this political leader who critiques white supremacy and also argues that black people should pursue dignity in their own history, their own culture, their own values.
And that leads to a pretty separatist vision.
Yeah. And, you know, it's interesting, this idea of separatism is really interesting. The deeper I investigated Malcolm X, the more I understood what he meant and what the Nation of Islam meant by racial separatism. It wasn't segregation. It wasn't segregation. It was separatism. They argued. And Malcolm does this in a series of debates against Bayard Rustin, against Jim Farmer, against James Baldwin, Lewis Lomax. He says that racial separatism is required because white people do not want black people to be citizens and have dignity.
And if they did, you wouldn't have to protest and experienced police violence and police brutality. Small children trying to integrate Little Rock high school, young people trying to integrate lunch counters, and they're arrested and brutalized. Sometimes people were killed, of course. So what's interesting about this idea of separatism, Malcolm argues separatism is black people having enough self-love and enough confidence in themselves to organize and build parallel institutions because America was so infected with the disease of racism, they could.
Never racially integrate into American democracy. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X initially disagreed on the role of violence and nonviolence. King, of course, was America's leading advocate of nonviolent civil disobedience. How would you describe Malcolm X's vision when he says by any means necessary?
Well, Malcolm is making the argument that one, black people have the right to self-defense and to defend themselves against police brutality. It's really striking when you follow Malcolm X in the 1950s and 60s, the number of court appearances he's making, whether it's in Buffalo, New York or Los Angeles or Rochester, New York, where members of the Nation of Islam have been brutalized at times killed by police violence. So Malcolm is arguing that, one, black people have a right to defend themselves.
Second part of Malcolm's argument, because he travels to the Middle East by 1959, travels four to five weeks overseas in 1964. Is that because there's anticolonial revolutions raging across Africa and the Third World in the context of the 1950s and 60s? He makes the argument that the black revolution in the United States is only going to be a true revolution once black people start utilizing self defense to end the racial terror they're experiencing both in the 1950s and 60s. But historically, and one of the reasons Malcolm makes that argument, obviously, is because his his father and his family had experienced that racial terror.
But one thing that's important to know is that we think about nonviolence versus self-defense. It's very, very complex because even though Martin Luther King Jr is is America's apostle and a follower of Gandhi and believes in nonviolence, there are always people around King who are trying to protect him. And in depth support for this podcast.
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But the movement always had people who were trying to protect peaceful demonstrators against racial terror.
So what was King's response to Malcolm X's argument against non-violent civil disobedience?
Well, King has several responses. I mean, one is that nonviolence is both a moral and political strategy. So the morality and the religious argument is that black people could not succumb to enemy politics. And this idea that when we think about white racism, we would become as bad as the people who are oppressing us. So he pushes back against that politically. He says, well, then there aren't enough black people, even if they arm themselves to win some kind of armed conflict and struggle.
And finally, he says and there's a great speech in nineteen sixty three in Los Angeles where he's really he doesn't mention Malcolm X, but he's speaking out against Malcolm X in terms of what's happening in Birmingham. And Malcolm has called him an Uncle Tom and all kinds of names. He says that non-violence is the weapon of strength. It's the weapon of people who are powerful and courageous and brave and heroic and disciplined. It's not the weapon of the weak because we're going to use this nonviolent strategy to actually transform the United States of America against its own will.
So this is where I in the book, I say Malcolm is Black, America's prosecuting attorney. He's prosecuting white America for a series of crimes against black humanity that date back to racial slavery. Dr. King is black America's defense attorney, but he's he's very interesting. He defends both both sides of the color line. He defends black people to white people and tells white people that black people don't want black supremacy. They don't want reverse racism. They don't want revenge for racial slavery and Jim Crow segregation.
They just want to be included in the body politic and have citizenship. But he also defends white people to black people. He's constantly telling, especially as the movement gets further radicalized. Black people that white people are good people, that white people, we can redeem the souls of the nation and we have white allies who have fought and struggled and died with us to achieve black citizenship. So it's very interesting the way the roles they both play. But over time, after Malcolm's assassination, one of the biggest ironies and transformations is that King becomes black, America's prosecuting attorney.
Do you think that King's tactics and Malcolm X's tactics complemented each other? And so it was like you can change because of civil disobedience or you can change because of a more violent set of protests, you know, organized by Malcolm X. So change is inevitable. You know, choose which one you want to respond to.
Absolutely. I think that they serve as each others alter ego over time. I think by the time Malcolm X becomes a national figure in nineteen fifty nine after the documentary series, The Hate That Hate produced, we see them going back and forth in terms of their notoriety, increases their political power and organizing and mobilizing capacity increases. But Malcolm injects a political radicalism on the national scene that absolutely makes Dr. King and his movement much more palatable to mainstream Americans. And especially, you know, when we think about the White House, the Kennedy administration is very, very and then Johnson administrations are aware of Malcolm X.
They're aware of the racial unrest that we usually think begins in Harlem, but really begins in Birmingham with the Mother's Day political rebellion in Birmingham. And then forces are sent in to try to quell that rebellion. So they absolutely serve as each other's alter ego. And one of the biggest examples and exemplars of this is that in nineteen sixty three, which is really a revolutionary year, even though there's no political legislation passed in sixty three. Sixty three is why we get the Civil Rights Act of 64 and the Voting Rights Act of sixty five.
There are hundreds of racial protests, demonstrations happening all around the United States and 63 from Philadelphia to Greenwood, Mississippi to Los Angeles, California to Washington, DC in the March on Washington. And Malcolm X is in Washington, D.C. at the same time that Dr. King is in Birmingham and Birmingham is going to radicalize both Malcolm and Martin in different ways. Malcolm comes to see because of Birmingham that he wants to be even more actively involved in the civil rights movement.
It's both because one of his friends was killed by the police in sixty two by the LAPD, Ronald Stokes, a black member of the Nation of Islam. And it's also because of what he sees in Birmingham. He says that black people have the right to defend themselves against two legged and four legged dogs that are attacking them in Birmingham. And that's a very famous Malcolm quip. Malcolm has all these famous quips and the four legged dogs of the German shepherds that the law enforcement has unleashed on peaceful demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama.
They unleash fire hoses that are powerful enough to strip the bark off of trees in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham. And what's so interesting about Birmingham is we have international news coverage. We have French papers describing law enforcement in Birmingham as savages. And this is incredible. So Dr. King is radicalized by Birmingham and famously is letter from Birmingham jail. What we see with King even before the March on Washington speech. In that letter from Birmingham jail, King denounces white liberals who he says are more interested in preserving an unjust peace than a disruptive movement that's trying to save the soul of America.
And so that's really extraordinary, the way in which 1963 catapults both of them into a more radical political future.
When you look at the protests today, the protests that we've seen going on for four months now, do you see within those protests the same kind of contrast that you see when you look at Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and their tactics?
Well, I think I see convergence. So what's really extraordinary is that the Black Lives Matter protesters really are protesting for a radical black dignity and citizenship and see that you need both. So Malcolm and Martin are the revolutionary sides of the same coin. And really the BLM movement has amplified that. So on one level, radical dignity really looks at structural problems in the structural violence struck. Inequality in the United States, the depth and breadth of white supremacy, the idea of citizenship is actually looking at how do we transform these democratic institutions in ways that will achieve black citizenship, but in a way that Dr.
King talked about with universal basic income and health care for all and education and desegregation. So we've seen both non-violent civil disobedience, but also very, very radical and militant denunciations of the existing status quo. Peniel Joseph, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much. Thank you, Terry. I'm a big fan. Peniel Joseph is the author of the new book The Sword and the Shield The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
Fresh Air Weekend is produced by Teresa Ma'aden Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller, our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman. They are Challoner, Seth Kelly and Jill Wolfram. Molly Stephen Esper is our associate producer of Digital Media.
I'm Terry Gross and.