by James Baldwin, 1972
It wasn’t until I did some research for my podcast episode about The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Spike Lee’s film that I learned that, while several writers attempted to write a script based on the book, Lee ultimately chose Baldwin’s effort on which to base his epic masterpiece. One Day When I Was Lost is the screenplay that was never realized on film. Baldwin chronicled some of the difficulties of writing for Hollywood in The Devil Finds Work, in which he relates that he was encouraged to increase the action sequences and learned that the script would be cut to emphasize entertainment. Baldwin abandoned the project, and his writing was produced only in book form until Lee decided to work from it in the early 90s. As such, the book bears strong resemblances to the resulting film. It doesn’t necessarily feel complete, but it is a clear stepping stone to what I consider to be the best movie I’ve ever seen.
The story that Baldwin creates offers a look at Malcolm X’s background to show how he became the militant civil rights leader he was known for, as well as the spiritual awakening he experienced during his pilgrimage to Mecca. That trip would change the way he saw white people not as individual racists, but as people as entrenched in a racist society. We are witness to his father’s murder at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, tied to railroad tracks as a train approaches. We see his mother be denied her husband’s life insurance payment, as his death was ruled a suicide, even as she questions how he could have possibly bashed his own head in with a hammer and then laid his body across the tracks. We see a teacher tell a young Malcolm that “colored people can’t become lawyers,” insisting that he’s telling him this for his own good and suggesting that he be a carpenter instead. We see Malcolm as a young adult, trying to endure the pain of the lye placed in his hair to straighten it and rid it of its natural curl, a scene which opens Lee’s movie.
Overall, the screenplay has moments of genius, but it feels loosely tied together. I question whether I would be able to follow it so well without having seen the film or having read The Autobiography. That may just be the nature of screenplays read on paper, but it may also be because this was not expanded to include all the details necessary for a fully coherent plot. For example, there are no scenes with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, whose fractured relationship with Malcolm X put the latter’s family in danger and led to his death. The pilgrimage to Mecca feels truncated and less impactful than what Malcolm X reported to Alex Haley of the event. However, the fiery defiance of his character remains intact and shows that his words are just as potent now as they were when he spoke them in the 60s. When asked about his comments that black people should form rifle clubs, Baldwin writes Malcolm X as responding, “The Constitution gives you the right, as a white man, to have a rifle in your home. The Constitution gives you the right to protect yourself. Why is it ‘ominous’ when black people even talk of owning rifles? Why don’t we have the right to self-defense? Is it because maybe you know we’re going to have to defend ourselves against you?” Oh, how distressingly little times have changed.
This book would probably be most appreciated by aficionados of Baldwin’s work, interested in completing his entire oeuvre, or those who want to know more about Spike Lee’s film. If learning more about Malcolm X is your objective, I’d highly recommend reading The Autobiography and then watching the film. One Day When I Was Lost simply isn’t going to give you enough context to understand Malcolm X’s rupture with the Nation of Islam and the disillusionment he experienced with the leader of that church. It also won’t provide you with Ossie Davis’s eulogy, read for the film by Davis himself, or the montage of news footage that firmly places Malcolm X’s legacy within our own timeline. Still, it is a fine example of Baldwin’s range, as he creates a solid image of this historically significant figure, his personal friend, whose relevance persists to this very day.