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Spike Lee Speaks Out on ‘Malcolm X’ : Movies: In a talk in Whittier, the director is tough, humorous and defensive about his controversial film.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The young black woman in the stylish blue dress stood at a microphone inside the college gymnasium and addressed her remarks to director Spike Lee.

“They say you are a lot like Malcolm X,” she said, a trace of hero worship in her voice. Lee immediately began to fidget in his chair.

“All untrue,” he replied softly, shaking his head. “All untrue.”

If there was any doubt, it was now dispelled. Not only was Spike Lee carrying the hopes of Warner Bros. in trying to bring in a box-office success with his film “Malcolm X,” but he was also carrying the expectations of many young African-Americans who see the director as the modern chronicler of the black experience.

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Lee’s $33-million movie about the slain black leader won’t be in theaters until the Christmas season but Lee has spoken out so much during the making of the movie that many of his fans are coming to identify him with Malcolm X. He is clearly uncomfortable with the comparisons.

For two hours Monday night, Lee sat in the Graham Activities Center at Whittier College giving his views on everything from Malcolm X--the man and the movie--to race relations, South Africa, black filmmakers and anti-Semitism.

At times, his language was tough. “It is my opinion . . . that the only way things will get resolved in South Africa is through bloodshed.”

At other times, it was humorous. He said studio executives really don’t consider Eddie Murphy a black actor anymore because he makes “too much money.”

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And he was defensive. When asked by a Jewish student if his portrayal of two Jewish nightclub owners in “Mo’ Better Blues” was anti-Semitic, he said he would not be “straitjacketed” by any unwritten rules. “Why is it that there can be no negative Jewish characters in films? . . . (Yet) why do we have black pimps and black drug dealers (depicted in movies)?”

Much of what Lee told his largely white college audience centered on “Malcolm X” and the man whose extraordinary life and message Lee was trying to capture on film.

Hollywood, he said, had initially wanted the film made with white directors like Norman Jewison.

“I had problems with a white director directing this film,” Lee said. “Unless you are black, you do not know what it means to be a black person in this country.”

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He said that many of Malcolm X’s friends and former associates would not have cooperated with white filmmakers on the project. “These people are very leery of opening up to white directors. . . . Most black people are suspicious of white people and their motives. That’s just reality.”

Lee recalled that at the time he was fighting to direct the film, “Warner Bros. was getting 100 letters a day protesting Norman Jewison directing the film.” He said Jewison accused him of mounting the letter writing campaign although “I had nothing to do with it.”

Lee said he finally met Jewison and afterward the noted director “was happy I got to do the film.”

In recent weeks, Lee has been thrust into another controversy involving budget overruns on his film. Initially given a $28-million budget to work with, the costs soared to $33 million, prompting a Century City completion bond company to step in and take control of the film until it is finished.

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Lee has indicated that all along he thought the film would cost $33 million. He explained that he initially proposed a $40-million budget to Warner Bros., but studio executives reacted negatively. “They said, ‘You’re crazy.’ ”

So Lee said he then submitted a revised budget of $33 million, which was subsequently lowered. But Lee said Warner Bros. themselves did their own budget calculations and estimated it would cost $35 million to make the picture.

Nevertheless, once the bond company stepped in, Lee said, he clashed several times with company representatives over whether he could afford to send a film crew to Egypt with star Denzel Washington and shoot scenes that Lee said were crucial to the life of Malcolm X.

In one instance, Lee said, the bond company questioned why he needed to film in the Sahara desert when the Arizona sand dunes could work just as well. He also said the bond company just didn’t understand how difficult it would be finding 2,000 Arab extras in the United States. Lee won the argument.

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Lee took pride in the fact that he was allowed to film in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, and said it was because the Islamic world considers Malcolm X a martyr.

He predicted that Washington would get an Academy Award for his performance as Malcolm X and, “If he doesn’t, we’ll burn the Academy down.”

But he also said that the Academy Award is a “popularity contest” and said it is voted on mostly by “white males over 50 years old.”

Turning to larger issues, Lee said black filmmakers “must open up their vision” and not keep telling the same stories over and over again. He said young black males need more diverse role models than athletes and rap singers.

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He said it is extremely hard to get a black drama financed if it does not include drug dealing, gangs and violence.

Asked afterward what he hopes the message of “Malcolm X” will be, Lee said:

“What we really want to put out is what we feel is the true image of Malcolm because there have been so many misconceptions of what he stood for--Malcolm X hated white people, Malcolm X promoted violence, Malcolm X this, Malcolm X that.

“A lot of people’s perceptions (about Malcolm X) came about by the media,” Lee said, adding that “Malcolm X scared not only white people but many blacks of his generation as well.”

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At one point in the evening’s presentation, a white student took the microphone and said he’d like to shake Lee’s hand. With that, he walked across the basketball floor as Lee got up from his chair and clasped the student’s hand. The audience erupted in applause.


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