The year is 1965. The place is the Theresa Hotel in Harlem. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are face to face. Their elbows are on the table between them, and their arms are locked in combat.
Wait a minute! What are these two civil rights leaders doing in the same room together? One man was known for his nonviolent approach, the other for his fiery militancy. Is it possible they could have been friends despite their differences? And if they had joined forces, what might have happened to the civil rights movement?
King and Malcolm were assassinated before anyone had the chance to find out. PBS' "American Playhouse," however, will investigate the possibilities in "The Meeting," a fictional confrontation between them just days before Malcolm was gunned down Feb. 21, 1965, during a Harlem rally. The drama is scheduled for broadcast May 3.
"I think most people see the two gentlemen as opposite sides of a coin, but they were more alike than different," says Jason Bernard, who plays King.
"I can see the benefit of both men, and I could play both," adds Dick Anthony Williams, who is cast as Malcolm.
At different times, both actors have appeared in playwright Jeff Stetson's stage version of "The Meeting." Today, however, they are sitting together in a shabby Harlem hotel room that has been re-created on Soundstage B at public television station KCET Channel 28 in Los Angeles.
Williams' and Bernard's characters have bitter words to speak to each other on camera. In the scene following the arm-wrestling sequence, Malcolm says challengingly: "White people gave you the award (the Nobel Peace Prize), Martin. Doesn't it worry you just a little that the people who are doing most of the oppressing are also giving out all the awards? I think you must have impressed them most when you said, 'If blood has to flow on the streets, let it be ours.' Hell, every cracker in the South would have chipped in to buy you an award for that one."
"The award was for peace," King says softly but firmly.
"No, Doctor," Malcolm insists, "the award was for getting beaten and not fighting back."
"You ought to try sitting down with us one day," King tells the tall man facing him, "and see what fighting back really means. Maybe then you'll be able to understand what I've said."
History has so far proved to be on King's side. "King got a holiday," director Bill Duke says. "Nobody knows who Malcolm X is. He's been blotted from our history."
"The Meeting" may help to re-establish Malcolm's place in the civil rights struggle.
"A lot of people have forgotten how complicated the movement was," says Ricki Franklin, KCET's director of cultural programs and producer of "The Meeting." "This offers viewers the opportunity to see not just the differences in the men's ideology but the commonality of goal."
Although the play describes a fictional encounter, King and Malcolm X actually did meet several times during the last year of Malcolm's life.
"It wasn't publicized," Duke says, "because they felt it would have created a lot of chaos. They had more in common than they had differences."
"Malcolm wasn't that dangerous a man," says Williams, who two decades ago attended one of his rallies in Los Angeles. "Malcolm was associated with violence at one point of his life, but he evolved from that. I know his wife, Betty, and one of his daughters. They always talk about his warmth and how gentle and fun-loving he was."
Twenty-six years ago, Bernard participated in King's March on Washington.
"I believed in what Dr. King said, and I believed what Malcolm said," he says. "I just hope that people come away from 'The Meeting' with the knowledge that these were men, not icons. They're to be revered and respected. But they were men, and what one man can achieve they can achieve."
This piece of black history will be seen on "American Playhouse" thanks to the persistence of Bill Duke. After obtaining the TV and film rights to "The Meeting," he initially tried to develop the project into a feature film. Eventually, because of "time constraints," he offered it to "American Playhouse," for whom he had just directed "A Raisin in the Sun."
"We don't have the greatest budget," he says (just over $500,000, according to Franklin), "but they're putting more care into it than anyone else in town would. This play is really strong, and I haven't had to compromise on any level or change the strength of it."
Duke, 45, was studying for his master's degree at New York University's School of the Arts when the supposed events of "The Meeting" took place.
"Those were very scary times," he says. "All I remember was that there was so much death. All my heroes and the people I believed in were just gone in a very short period. I don't know if I've ever recovered from that time.
"This piece is almost cathartic for me. I'm still not totally clear on my views on these issues. My head is clearer, but my gut isn't. Time gives you perspective but not on an emotional level. These were two very important people, but more important are the issues they were addressing--which still face us now."
Until recently, Duke spent most of his time directing episodic television.
"I could be very (financially) safe in episodic," he says, "but I wanted to be involved with projects that make us question our values, our prejudices, our loves and our fears.
"We're living in a society that no longer reads. History is being written by films. So film makers take on an enormous responsibility. We must tell the story as accurately as possible. For instance, when young kids see 'Mississippi Burning,' they believe that's what happened."
The Oscar-nominated film about FBI agents investigating the killing of three civil-rights activists in the South is a sore subject for Duke.
"I think the heroes of that period were Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Malcolm, the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), Operation Breadbasket, the voters' rights people and the ladies that stood up on buses," he says. "History should record the sacrifices they made, and this film did not do that. It's very discouraging. Now if someone proposes a movie about the civil rights movement, the studios will say, 'It's been done.' "
Duke rubs his head in despair. "You've got to just keep trying and trying. But," he laughs out of frustration, "it's so hard. Maybe this project can make a difference."