COVER STORY : On the Spot With 'Malcolm X' : Spike Lee's biggest test: steering a $25-million biography on the fiery African-American through a political and cultural minefield

Michael Wilmington writes about film for The Times

It's a gray December afternoon in Harlem. A cold wind is rising on 116th Street, between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass boulevards.

There's a dual level to the street scene. On top, there's the Harlem of today, with cheap Chinese fast-food places and David Dinkins posters--and, over at the intersection, a group clustered around a trash-barrel fire, while a stray Siamese cat peeks out through a hole in the bricks.

Just below, there's the Harlem of the late '50s, when the Shabazz restaurant of today was called the Temple Seven restaurant, and it sold "blue fish" dinners for $1 a plate, Asiatic Fruit Punch for a dime and an Arabian Sandwich for 85 cents--and when one of its regular customers was a natty, intense, red-haired black man named Minister Malcolm X.

That's what's caused the double edge: Director Spike Lee and his company have assembled at the mid-block restaurant to shoot scenes for Warner Bros.' adaptation of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." The truck parked outside the restaurant, the commissary van, the cables stretched over the sidewalks, the sawhorses, they're all part of the shoot. Meanwhile, walking on the fringes of the scene, you can spot an eerie dead ringer for Malcolm X himself: actor Denzel Washington, in ultra-conservative suit and glasses.

The movie being made here, and on other locations throughout Harlem, Upstate New York and, eventually, Africa, is a sure bet as one of 1992's most controversial. Reason No. 1: Lee, the 34-year-old Brooklyn filmmaker whose unique movies and gadfly comments rile critics and audiences everywhere. No. 2: the subject, the fieriest African-American spokesman of his era. Warners calls the movie "Malcolm X"; much of the crew refers to it simply as "X." Right now, in the back area of the re-created Temple Seven restaurant, before a mural depicting a pyramid and Sphinx under a fierce red sun, the somber Denzel Washington, as Malcolm, stares at a nervous young recruit into the Black Muslims, who would eventually be called Benjamin 2X (Jean LaMarre). Washington's Malcolm, seemingly hard as nails, pouring a thick stream of cream in his cup, murmurs: "The only thing I like integrated is my coffee."

Over and over, the scene unwinds to its climax: short, intense Benjamin, all but accepted into the Nation of Islam, happily storming out of the restaurant and slapping everybody on the back, while a stocky security guard turns, very slowly, to watch him. Over and over, the crowd in the rear--gaffers, grips, all the way back to director of photography Ernest Dickerson and writer-director-producer Lee, huddled over a monitor--follow them intently. But, this time, at the point where director Lee usually says "Cut! Check the gate!" he boisterously yells: "Ira! My man!" to a burst of applause and laughter.

The room goes wild. Burly Ira Turner--an actual guard, from the current Nation of Islam's storied security force--is playing the guard. And he's doing his role with such dour, glacial solemnity, with such robotic stiffness, that he has momentarily upstaged Malcolm, Benjamin and the entire movie. Turner breaks into a smile-- slowly as always. (He says later he was worried that he'd goofed.) Everybody cracks up again. Dickerson and several colleagues start whistling, "Come Along With Me, Lucille, in My Merry Oldsmobile!" Ira is congratulated as if he were the new Wesley Snipes. Then, it's "Check the gate!," calls for "Quiet!" from assistant director Randy Fletcher, and back to work.

A typical Spike Lee set.

"I think this is the right time for this film to be done," Lee says later, in the editing room of his 40 Acres and a Mule production company, over Brooklyn's DeKalb Avenue. "I don't think it's any coincidence that several other filmmakers have tried to make 'The Autobiography' before and, right now, it happens. I feel this film is supposed to be made right now."

Excessive confidence? A sense of mission? Lee isn't alone in feeling it. "I feel very fortunate, extremely blessed." says co-star Angela Bassett, ("Boyz N the Hood" and "City of Hope") who's playing Malcolm's wife, Betty Shabazz. "We want something that's gonna last," says co-producer Monty Ross, Lee's longest-term collaborator. "We have a hell of a lot of pressure on us to deliver a great film--not only for the box office, but because this movie is 23 years in the making, and because of its spiritual levels. So, we're looked at as kids: Can these kids really do this movie? And I think they're gonna be very surprised. . . ."

The "Malcolm X" project is the brainchild of producer Marvin Worth. Since 1967, when he purchased the rights, the project has gone through many scripts and directors. One of the earliest screenplays, written by Arnold Perl and the late novelist James Baldwin--is the one being used, and revised, by Lee.

"Of all the scripts I read, the Baldwin was the best," according to Lee. "But the final act was kind of weak. At the time he wrote it, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (then the leader of the Black Muslims and Malcolm's mentor and later political enemy) was still alive and a lot of stuff about the assassination and their split was not public knowledge. Baldwin was very leery about it. That was 1969; now it's 1991. The research is out."

Lee is politic. He rarely uses the name of the late Elijah Muhammad without prefacing it with "The Honorable." And, certainly, he's aware of the political minefield he's stepping into. Earlier, Amiri Baraka (once LeRoi Jones) attacked his qualifications and politics. And, weeks ago, New York newspapers published stories about the arrest on heroin possession charges of Lee's father, jazz musician and composer, Bill Lee.

Is it wearing him down? As Lee drives to Brooklyn, where he screens the dailies, he and Ross rarely exchange a word; they simply lean back and soak up Marvin Gaye ballads on the tape deck. The sheer exhaustion level of this project even has him discussing slowing down the hectic one-movie-a-year pace he's maintained since 1988 and "School Daze."

"This is a pace I can't keep up. Nor is it a pace I want to keep up," Lee admits. "That doesn't mean I'm going out to pasture. . . ." He talks about new activities, such as starting up a black arts magazine; even talks, somewhat wistfully, about maybe starting up a family of his own.

"Spike will stay focused through anything," says editor Barry Alexander Brown. "He'll always do what has to be done." Yet he's never done a project of this size and scope: a vast historical saga, which encompasses four decades and four distinct, evolutionary stages in a man's life. And it's coming to him now, only six years after the breakthrough of his surprise independent hit, "She's Gotta Have It." That film had a production budget of $18,000; "Malcolm X's" overall budget is $25 million.

"We can't find it intimidating," Lee says, "You know . . . I'm a big sports fan. So I use sports analogies. If you're down one point and there's no time on the clock and you're at the free-throw line (with) two shots--you can't think about 'What happens if I miss both of them . . . miss one?' You have to block out and do the job at hand. And, after you make them, you can sit back and say, 'Ssssshooo!'

"This is an epic picture," he explains. "On the scale of the great films that David Lean did. And so the story requires that style: the big canvas, the big scope. . . . I told Warner Bros. from Day 1 this is a three-hour film. That's why we're so happy for Oliver Stone! 'JFK' is three hours, so no (expletive) from Warner Bros. when it comes to us, next turn!"

Epic it is. Lee's "Malcolm X" has already featured large-scale re-creations of the Small's Paradise night spot, whole '40s Harlem blocks and jitterbugging days in the Apollo Ballroom. The film flashes through Malcolm's youth, from his introduction to a life of cocaine, jazz, whores and burglary in Boston and New York, the bleak prison years and his program of intensive self-education, his reclamation by the strict behavioral standards of the Nation of Islam, his glory years as Elijah Muhammad's first minister, his final traumatic rejection by the organization and eventual assassination.

Yet it's not the "violent" Malcolm that Lee intends to emphasize. "We feel it's important to show all the Malcolms. Malcolm had a great sense of humor. . . . Again, you know, people only have one image. From the media: pouting, mouth stuck out, or angry and saying, 'White people are devils.'

"That was part of Malcolm at one time--when he was at that stage in his development. But that was not the total Malcolm X. And, in the later years of his life, he was far from that person. . . . It's like he said: 'I'm just not gonna say all white people are devils anymore. There are good white people and bad white people. There are good black people; there are . . . bad black people.' He had his world rocked when he went to Mecca and had to question everything he'd been taught. And, being an honest man, he doesn't care if people are gonna call him a hypocrite, making a 360-degree turn."

The linkage between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X fascinates Lee, who used a famous picture of both men shaking hands, with quotes from each on violence, as the postscript for "Do the Right Thing."

"I think, if both of them would have lived longer," Spike explains, "there would have been a meeting of the minds, because they were headed that way. A lot of people got confused about those ("Right Thing") quotes, because they thought they were diametrically opposed. But I saw it as two men who chose different routes to try to free their people. Yet their destination was the same. They both wanted to end up the same place."

Lee, who liked "JFK" enough to watch it twice, sees conspiratorial possibilities in Malcolm's death too. "The FBI may have been in on all those assassinations. Every one: King, the Kennedys. . . . Now we've got a President (Bush) who was head of the CIA. So you know what kind of man he is.

"George Bush is really slick." Lee adds, referring to the recent nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. "(He) says: 'How can you call me a racist? I got a black guy!' He's full of (expletive): Clarence Thomas. Because those guys: They get up so far, and they think they're not black. 'This is America. Color doesn't matter. You can pull yourself up by the bootstraps. . . .' Then, the minute they set some fire to his ass, Clarence Thomas says (whining): 'It's because I'm black! It's a high-tech lynching! It's racist!' " "

"You know, I don't think there's a big difference between George Bush and David Duke. . . ."

The night when ex-Ku Klux Klan head Duke is defeated in the Louisiana governor's race--despite winning 55% of the white vote--Lee and company are filming the key scene in which Malcolm X, at a La Guardia Airport press conference, reveals his changed stand on racial relations.

Lee's crew seems an island of racial harmony and camaraderie in a racially charged city. White line producer Jon Kilik jokes with black line producer Preston Holmes; Dickerson joshes with his white camera operator (Phil Oetiker) and gaffer. And everyone--all races, sexes and colors--is decked out like a raffish sports team, or a group of shoppers from the Brooklyn boutique "Spike's Joint."

One of the idiosyncrasies of Spike's films--from his first abortive 1985 project, "The Messenger" on, has been the way they generate their own couture. Here, Kilik wears a white and black 40 Acres and a Mule letter jacket. Holmes has a blue "School Daze" coat. A woman crew member has a "She's Gotta Have It" white T-shirt with "Please, baby, please baby, baby baby, please" on the back.

Ernest Dickerson is plugging his own recent directorial debut with a black "Juice" jacket over a blue "Martha's Vineyard" sweat shirt. And Lee himself, under a rakish red and white bandanna, has a black leather and suede jacket with a red, white and blue "X" on the back and Malcolm on the front.

Fashion statements aside, the sequence is tricky. A crowd of jaded reporters stand ready to hector the newly bearded Malcolm, returning from Mecca, and Lee is shooting Malcolm as a man at the vortex. Two cameras film him simultaneously--one close up, one further back, both circling in opposite directions--and the closer camera, which will be filmed occasionally by the one behind it, is an actual period 16-millimeter model, operated by crew-people disguised as newsmen. The illusion extends through the sound recording; according to boom operator Stu Deutsch, period mikes are being used.

At the rear, Denzel Washington stands silently. His colleagues are in awe of the way he's caught Malcolm X's look and spirit. Costume designer Ruthe Carter says, "It's spooky. . . . When we see him with the facial hair, the '60s clothes . . . he looks just like Malcolm X. And when I go back to my notebooks, to those photographs of the real Malcolm X . . . he looks like Denzel Washington. " Lee himself calls Washington's performance his prime joy. "I'm just amazed every day. . . . I'm in awe of Denzel. He's worked almost every single day of this film; had a tremendous amount to prepare: A month rehearsal for the dance. . . . That's been my biggest pleasure: just watching him work."

Now, as Washington enters the lobby with Bassett and three children beside him, he remarks: "It's interesting. I'm so tired that the fatigue works for me. I'll try to do as little acting as I possibly can. That's hard to do."

Yet, as the scene progresses, he keeps nimbly changing readings. Like Dennis Hopper, he seems an actor who hates to repeat himself. "Today," he keeps saying slowly and meaningfully to his interrogators, with different inflections, but the same immense, warming grin, "I have friends that are black, brown, red, yellow-- and white."

"The white Spike Lee!" Mike Tyson kept calling editor Barry Brown at a recent Harlem shoot, during a reconstruction of the famed Apollo Theater. "Look! It's the white Spike Lee!"

And, indeed, Brown, who graduated from high school in Montgomery, Ala., and who has recently grown a goatee to go along with his shortish stature and glasses, has begun to slightly resemble his longtime friend and employer.

Maybe it's just osmosis. Brown has worked with Lee since "She's Gotta Have It." He was head editor on both "School Daze" and "Do the Right Thing" and is back on board for "Malcolm X," where he is also directing second-unit scenes. (Brown's other editing credits include "Salaam Bombay!" and "Truth or Dare.") As a 10-year friend, he may be uniquely qualified to answer that often-posed question: "What does Spike Lee really think of white people?"

"It's a really stupid question," Brown says. "But I think a lot of people draw these strange conclusions about Spike from his statements about wanting more black people involved in movies--and the fact that he goes out of his way to really hire them. But . . . if you look at his crew, it's more mixed than any crew I've seen. You've gotta be conscious of hiring people of color to right the wrong."

Ross, Spike's longest-term friend/colleague--they've worked together since the 1979 Homecoming Coronation show at Morehouse College--agrees: "This is what we're trying to do as a black film company. We employ all. We employ black. We employ white. We employ women. We employ all kinds of people."

"But first of all . . . there's not a lot of work for black filmmakers." He laughs: "You gotta keep your day job! So, basically we have a working philosophy. . . . We have a commonality about us that keeps us all tight and together. We're trying to be about the work ethic."

Ross tugs at his baseball cap. "I just hope when all is said and done, people will understand that art, in and of itself, is never finished, and what we're trying to bring them is just a slice of a man's life. . . a great life."

"I love those Hong Kong action movies. I'm a big Tsui ("Peking Opera Blues") Hark fan," Ernest Dickerson confesses.

With his lush lighting and jazzily intricate camera movements, Dickerson has become a genuine photographic star; one of the American Society of Cinematographers' youngest members, he was sponsored by Nestor Almendros ("Days of Heaven"). Dickerson met Lee at NYU Film School and has shot all of Lee's films since his final NYU student project, "Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads"--which starred Monty Ross. On the set, they sit side by side, functioning, by now, almost like a double-headed creator.

"Photographically, in 'Malcolm X' I'm trying to use light in different ways and styles to show different stages in Malcolm's life. . . . I've actually changed the filtration and color structure. I worked it out with (40 Acres production designer) Wynn Thomas: When he's a hood and a hustler, I wanted to get the feeling that Malcolm X was not born yet, that he was in the womb, waiting to be born.

"I think a lot of times, photographic style, any kind of dramatic style, comes out of your limitations as well as your advantages. . . . 'Mo' Better Blues' and 'Jungle Fever' were the first films where we didn't feel we were time-constricted and had to make compromises. Even in 'Do the Right Thing,' we were rushing."

Producer Marvin Worth was once Lenny Bruce's manager; his longish gray hair, leather jacket, encyclopedic knowledge and wit, easy profanity and irreverence stamp him as a lifetime hipster.

Now, sitting in a studio limousine on 116th Street, Worth muses about the bad times we're in. As a Jewish producer, how does he feel about the charges of anti-Semitism leveled against his director, charges that so infuriated Lee that he wrote an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, "I am not an anti-Semite," and briefly planned an intro for "Jungle Fever" telling anyone who did think he was an anti-Semite that they "could kiss my black ass-- two times. " Did Worth have troubles with the portrayal of the fast-talking, ebullient, money-loving Flatbush brothers in "Mo' Better Blues"? "You know," says Worth, "I really don't know what all the fuss was about. Hell, I knew lots of club owners like that."

A few blocks from 116th Street and Temple Seven restaurant, the "X" crew sets up a traveling shot that looks like Harlem Fellini. A row of seven "hookers"--resplendent in hot purple shorts, split skirts, leopard skin jackets, nylons, colored bras and garter belts line up in front of a blasted block and a vacant lot filled with rubble. Gaudy pimps and seedy, furtive customers are scattered among them, and the cold is so intense that after every take, production assistants have to whip fur coats over the game but freezing ladies.

Washington, as Malcolm, is supposed to pass these pros, oblivious to carnal allure, while ace Steadicam operator Ted Churchill backs up quickly ahead of him. But there's been such a festive air--the girls posing for a raucous still with Spike--that on the 7th take, Denzel Washington's iron resolve finally snaps. After the first "prostitute" beckons, he succumbs, charges up the staircase and starts to carry her through the door. "Cut! Cut!" Spike yells, while the crew cheers.

In the center of the street, a set visitor in glasses and parka, laughs along. It's John Singleton, whose "Boyz N the Hood" set in South Central L.A., was one of 1991's surprise critical-commercial hits.

Some critics have tried to set Singleton against Lee as potential rivals. And, indeed, Lee makes caustic assessments of some other contemporary black movie makers: "I'm not going to name these films--but a lot of these movies are terrible. There's no craft there. The scripts are no good; the actors are no good. You gotta love filmmaking; you gotta love movies. And the way these movies are made . . . I don't see any love in it."

But he specifically exempts "Boyz N the Hood." "I'm so happy that John Singleton came along," Spike says. "I'm happier than he is. I loved 'Boyz N the Hood.' The first time I saw that film--in Cannes--I was elated. I feel John's a born filmmaker. And he'll be making movies the rest of his life."

The admiration is mutual. "Great! It's phenomenal," Singleton says of Lee shooting "Malcolm X." "Spike was the first person to prove you could make a film with a strong Afro-centered vision and make it be profitable. He didn't have to dilute his work. . . . That's important. And that's why I look up to Spike."

Something is obviously bothering Spike Lee. Sitting in the trailer, he runs down what his family is doing.

"Cinque's trying to get a film," he says softly. "Him and my sister Joie, they just did a pilot for Nickelodeon. David is unit photographer. Chris is workin' at the store (Spike's Joint). Father's in rehab." Pause. "For heroin. He got busted. You didn't know that?"

No.

"It was on the front page of the New York Post four weeks ago. It's something he's been doing a long time."

How long?

"Long time. Twenty years."

The decades after Bill Lee ended his career as bass accompanist for Josh White or Peter, Paul and Mary. The years Spike's mother supported the family as a teacher, dying of cancer in 1978. The years Bill scored his son's films, winning an L.A. Film Critics' award for "Do the Right Thing."

"He just finally got caught. He's an outpatient.

"I was mad at first--because they didn't have to know that he was my father, but he said: 'I'm Spike Lee's father; Spike's my son!' You know: He thought it was gonna save his neck. . . . It was a big thing; it was a lead story.

"I told him, you know: 'You're going to get caught. It's going to be a big thing.' He never believed me. . . . It was a bad habit. It was going to happen sooner or later, so I'm glad it happened when it did. And he's vowed he's going to go straight. We'll see what's going to happen. . . . He's doin' better. That's the most important thing."

Drugs, smack, crack. People trying to blot out reality? Or pain?

"I don't think that's the real reason people do drugs. I'm not a psychiatrist. . . . There were a whole lot of jazz musicians who did heroin. And it just wasn't to blot out pain. It made 'em feel good. Some of them even felt it might make 'em play better. But . . . it's a big problem.

"For me," says Spike, "Malcolm X still lives. Because everything he talked about is still prevalent today. The condition of black people in America; how racism operates. The disunity of black people: That hasn't changed either. That very disunity led to his death."

So what needs to be done? "I don't know if I can answer that. You can't just say: Well, it's drugs. Everybody go to school. Let's bring the nuclear family back. It's too complicated. . . . People don't read anymore. They're not taught to read. They just get plunked down in front of the TVs. . . . And you know, the white kids ain't learnin' either. The whole U.S. education system needs to be overhauled in general. But particularly blacks, Hispanics, minorities: We go to the worst schools."

Critics probably fixate on Spike the spokesperson, because he's so willing to discuss issues like these, but he's not self-fixated. He tends to belittle, for example, his own acting. ("I'm limited. Limited. ") Indeed, when you watch his productions, it's clear that he delights in the idea of a team of filmmakers, hanging together and growing together from film to film.

"The people who are still here," says Spike, "are the people who said, like me, that we cannot rest on our laurels and we have to keep learning. . . . "And that's why Ernest is still here. And that's why Wynn Thomas is still designing the production, Ruthe Carter is still doing the costumes and Robi Reed is still casting. Monty, Jon Kilik, Preston, Randy Fletcher: Some of us have been together since 'She's Gotta Have It,' but everybody else has been here since 'School Daze.' So, the last five picture: It's a team.

"Now, of course, there are times when you have to change the spokes, but the wheel has been the same. And we realize there are times when people are not going to be working with us. . . . But that's life and people move on. I've always told Ernest there's going to come a point when he's going to be directing and he won't be shooting my films. But I understand it."

If "Malcolm X," is a last hurrah for the first team, how does he feel about it?

"I feel good. Confident. I use a lot of sports analogies--but I'm like Magic (Johnson) or Michael (Jordan). If it's the last 10 seconds of the game . . . give me the ball! "

There's no way it won't go in the hole?

"No way. This one's a winner."

When the day's shoot finally wraps on 116th Street--the restaurant closes down, all the extras are long gone from the huge dining hall in the nearby Canaan Baptist Church, Dickerson's lights, cables, everything packed away--there's a sense, almost, of the end of a game, an emptying theater.

The Irish-American teamster-chauffeur talks avidly about Spike Lee's films. The locals who are huddled around the trash-barrel fire call publicist Anna Southall over and try to sell her the stray Siamese cat. Although she has two at home, she's tempted. But the cat isn't; it suddenly disappears. And, as you look up this street and the others, at Harlem's people walking up and down--happy, sad, desultory, buoyant, blase, frazzled, wondering what's going to happen next--it really does seem as if we've emerged from a cul-de-sac in time. As if nothing much had changed in all the years between the '60s and us, then and now.

Except for the street signs. Like the one at the end of West 115th, where the hookers teased Denzel Washington: The street that used to be called Lenox and is now Malcolm X Boulevard.

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