Cover a famous song and people will test its merits. Reboot a loved film and fanboys will let you know what they think. Write a biography that re-explores a very respected autobiography and you are guaranteed to elicit comparison.
It seems perhaps unfair to compare Manning Marable's biography of Malcolm X to The Autobiography of Malcolm X published in 1965. The Autobiography... as told to Alex Haley has sold several million copies and been named one of the most important and influential biographies ever written. It is a hallmark work of non-fiction and continues to be celebrated nearly fifty years after its publication. And yet, a comparison between the two books is in order. What better do we have to measure Marable's work by?
The difference between the two works is as obvious as the covers. The most circulated cover of The Autobiography of Malcolm X features a color painting of a thoughtful Malcolm X, his hair dissolving into the swirl of clouds in the blue sky above, two more images of his face in the background that perhaps show his more revolutionary side and his gentler side.
The first edition cover of Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention shows a black-and-white photograph of the contemplative, teacher Malcolm. The cover features little flair, almost no color, its straight lines box the name of Malcolm X and give the image of Malcolm little room to move.
This is exactly what you should expect from these two books.
While The Autobiography... was a beautiful and organic declaration of faith, moving and inspiring in its execution, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention is a detached, yet very meticulous portrayal of Malcolm X, as well as those who surrounded him. Though not “definitive,” Malcolm X provides a detailed account of Malcolm's life, from an exploration of his parents' lives to every step Malcolm, his advisers, and his enemies took in the final hours of his life. Marable fills in all those facts Malcolm X and Haley couldn't have known, i.e. who among Malcolm's entourage may have been an informant (for the FBI, the NYPD, the NOI, etc.), and those details no one would've divulged at the time, .i.e. who slept with whom. It nearly completes the image we have of Malcolm. It is a high resolution photograph of his life. But it lacks all the magic and wonder of The Autobiography....
Both books have their place, and I don't think Marable should be faulted for creating such an intricate mapping of Malcolm's life, a task which Marable apparently spent decades on. Marable's work should be praised, but it will never be what The Autobiography... was and is. Though it provides a more complete picture, it should always be read secondary to the 1965 autobiography. Before you learn about Malcolm's life, you really need to be introduced to Malcolm's soul