February 11, 2021   6 mins

Michael de Freitas, otherwise known as Michael X or Michael Abdul Malik, claimed to be the most powerful black man in Europe. In the Sixties he was a pimp, a gangster, and a revolutionary. He started the decade as a rent collector for the notorious landlord Peter Rachman, who rented exorbitantly priced property to prostitutes and West Indian immigrants in Notting Hill. Later in the decade, after establishing the Racial Adjustment Action Society (RAAS), an anti-racist Black Power organisation, Malik became Michael X; a hotel worker thought he was Malcolm’s brother and the name stuck. In 1975, he was convicted of double murder and hanged in Trinidad.

Malik features prominently in the first two episodes of Adam Curtis’s new film series, Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World. It begins like many of his previous films, with the conviction that the current state of the world is confusing, and then proceeds to trace this confusion back to obscure movements and individuals in the past.

Curtis’s subjects include, besides Malik, Mao Zedong’s last wife, Jiang Qing, the British model Sandra Paul and her aristocratic husband, Robin Douglas-Home. These episodes are concerned, principally, with whether the individual can impose his or her own fantasies on the world — and at what cost. The viewing experience is trademark Curtis — a mishmash of visual clips juxtaposed with the narrative voice of the traditional BBC. David Lynch meets David Attenborough.

Tracing Malik’s life in Britain, we see clips of him being interviewed on colour television; we also see him in black and white stills, adorned with the beard of a cult-leader. When he first appears in the film, with his softly-spoken Trinidadian accent, the impression is of a reflective man, not someone beholden to dangerous fantasies. His only discernible desires are the empowerment of black people and an end to racial injustice.

V. S. Naipaul, in his extraordinary essay on Malik, offers a very different impression of the man. Written in 1979, ‘Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad: Peace and Power’ presents him throughout as a narcissist utterly divorced from reality. He is ready to kill to fulfil his delusions. Naipaul’s point, still relevant today, is about how ostensibly noble politics can be deformed by individual pathology; and how idealism, when it is not rooted in reality, can degenerate into a sectarian fantasy. Naipaul notes that Malik espoused an essentialist view of black people: “the Negro who had not dropped out, who was educated, had a skill or a profession, was not quite a Negro; there was no need for anyone to come to terms with him. The real Negro was more elemental.”

After 14 years in Britain, Malik had grown frustrated with it. He was prosecuted and imprisoned for 10 months under the 1967 Race Relations Act for inciting hatred against white people. In 1971, he moved back to Trinidad to establish a commune. There he was visited by a strange couple.

Gale Benson was a 27-year-old divorced British model and socialite — and the daughter of a former Tory MP. Her lover, Hakim Jamal, was a black American revolutionary-playboy who had previously dated the actress Jean Seberg and the editor Diana Athill. (Athill, incidentally, was a long-term editor of Naipaul.) After two months staying in Malik’s commune, Benson was stabbed with a cutlass by Malik’s followers and buried. Very soon after Benson’s murder, a local Trinidadian man named Joseph Skerritt was also killed. Jamal was told that Benson had simply ran away; he subsequently left. A year later, he was killed in a gang-related incident in Boston.

The bare facts are well-established. But Curtis and Naipaul diverge on the motivations behind these murders. Strangely, Naipaul’s explanation for them is more Curtisian than Curtis’s: they were the fulfillment, he suggests, of a fundamentally sinister fantasy. Naipaul describes Malik as a “Carnival figure”.

“He was an entertainer, a playactor; but he wasn’t the only one. He failed to understand that section of the middle class that knows it is secure, has no views, only reflexes and scattered irritations, and sometimes indulges in play: the people who keep up with revolution as with the theatre, the revolutionaries who visit centres of revolution, but with return air-tickets, the people for whom Malik’s kind of Black Power was an exotic but safe brothel.”

This characterisation of liberals who fethisise black radicalism, whilst leading affluent lives, recalls a passage from Albert Murray’s 1970 essay collection The Omni-Americans. In it, he quotes a black resident of Westchester County who said to Murray: “If you don’t go in there moaning and pissing and moaning and making threats, they’ll call you a moderate and drop your butt fifty times faster than Malcolm ever could.” The resident later emphasises the gratuitous nature of this spectacle. Speaking directly about his wealthy white neighbours, he writes: “But damn, man, the minute you sound off, you realized they’ve tricked you into scat singing and buck dancing for them; because there they are, all crowding around, like watching you masturbate, like they are ready to clap their hands and yell, ‘Go man, go, get hot man’”.

This speaks directly to a tendency among many white progressives today who encourage black people to be angry. Of course, black people often have a justifiable reason to be angry, and solidarity against racism is a good thing. But the fixation of some progressive white people with that anger speaks more of condescension than solidarity. It implies that to be authentically black is to perpetually resent white people — which is another way of centring white people, and allows little space for the other emotions and experiences that constitute the life of a black person.

This is the way Naipaul presents Malik and Jamal: men whose radicalism was patronised, in both senses of the word, by affluent white people. And they seemed to welcome this. John Lennon, for instance, donated his hair and money to support one of Malik’s communes — even as he denounced the white liberal as the devil. Jamal pursued relationships with wealthy white women while promoting an especially sectarian brand of black nationalism.

Malcolm X had a different approach. Like them he grew up a petty criminal. After he underwent his prison transformation, however, the sanctimony of his rhetoric was consistent with his puritan lifestyle. Part of the reason he left the Nation of Islam was that Elijah Muhammad spoke like Pat Robertson to the public but behaved like John F. Kennedy with his secretaries.

But Malcolm wasn’t simply puritan in his personal life — he was also frugal when it came to support from white people. There is one striking scene in Spike Lee’s film on Malcolm, for instance, where a young radical white female college student is trying to get his attention: “What can I do?”, she asks. How can I support the cause? Malcolm responds by calmly saying: “Nothing.” Self-described disciples of Malcolm, Malik and Jamal, might have said the same, but their actions reflect a different answer: give us lots of money and sleep with us.

This tension — between servility on one side and hatred on the other — is destructive for any type of politics concerned with social justice. Malik was a performance artist who gratified the appetite of white progressives, and whose desires were in turn encouraged. He was led to believe he was God; but he still needed the approval of white people for this. His mind was full of these strange, polarising extremes. When Jamal had apparently told him that Benson had become a “mental drain”, ordinary moral constraints need not apply: she would have to be killed. Malik and Jamal had developed a close bond, and she was getting in the way.

According to Naipaul, Benson was Jamal’s slave in the relationship. She wore African clothing and adopted the name Hal Kigma, an anagram of ‘Gale’ and ‘Hakim’, to represent her total devotion to her lover. The white liberal woman is either a slave to the empowered black man or a hindrance to the movement — a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And the murder of Benson, Naipaul’s account suggests, was the latter. After she was killed, Malik led members of the commune to wash in the sea. They wanted to purge themselves after killing a devil.

Curtis’s film offers a different account for the motivation behind the murder of Benson. According to Curtis, Malik’s actions were a reversion to his criminal past. The all-black commune he’d established, Black House, was simply a front for his drug dealing. He murdered Benson not out of race redemption, but because in Trinidad he was growing and exporting marijuana to America, and he thought Benson was going to rat him out. In Naipaul’s account, Malik’s Black Power rhetoric was underpinned by the fantasies of a madman. In Curtis’s film, by contrast, the Black Power rhetoric was underpinned by the logic of a callous gangster.

Curtis’s account certainly seems more plausible, but Naipaul’s account is more instructive for today. It is an indictment of a culture fascinated by the strength conferred by victimhood — a culture vulnerable to the grievous abuse of those who view reality through the prism of transgressive play. But it is also a critique of white progressives who, instead of treating black people with dignity, mistake condescension for solidarity — and confuse the rage of a black person with his entire personality.

Tomiwa Owolade is a freelance writer and the author of This is Not America, which will be published by Atlantic in June.