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Lee Urges Support for ‘X’ : Movies: Director asks black workers and students to stay home when his ‘Malcolm X’ premieres on Nov. 20.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Controversial director Spike Lee is calling on African-Americans to send Hollywood a message by taking a day off from work and keeping children home from school on Nov. 20, when his movie “Malcolm X” opens.

“We’re telling them they’ve got to turn out to support this film and support Malcolm,” said Lee, who accused the film industry of discriminating against black filmmakers after Warner Bros. initially failed to back him when he exceeded his $28-million budget by $5 million. The cost of the film, starring Denzel Washington, is now put at $35 million.

Skipping school is justifiable, Lee said in a telephone interview earlier this week from his production company in Brooklyn, because the epic of the black leader who was assassinated in 1965 represents “the American history (children are) not getting in school. . . . If they go see the film and write a report of what they’ve seen, the teachers can’t hold that against them.”

Lee issued a similar exhortation last week at a National Assn. of Black Journalists meeting in Detroit, telling the cheering audience, according to a report in the Detroit News: “Don’t go to work that day! Don’t let the children go to school! Go to this movie! We have to support this film or Hollywood will have the excuse it wants.”

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In the telephone interview, Lee laughed as he compared his plan to the one-act play “Day of Absence,” by Douglas Turner Ward, which imagines a “day that black folks disappeared, and society came to a standstill.”

But in this case, Lee said he wants to ensure that the movie scores big at the box office on the all-important opening weekend.

The feisty director also said he has no plans to change an opening title sequence that has not played well with Warner Bros. executives, who viewed the three-hour, 11-minute film for the third time last week. The sequence features a burning American flag whose charred remains reconfigure as the letter “X,” plus footage of the March, 1991, beating of Rodney G. King, which Lee purchased from George Holliday, the plumber who videotaped the infamous incident.

“It’s staying in,” Lee declared. “Anybody who sees the opening credit sequence will have no trouble interpreting what the juxtaposition (of 1960s and more recent events) is saying: that this (story) is something we’re not fabricating. It’s not Hollywood, this ain’t Walt Disney. This is about the present state of race relations in the world.”

Warner Bros. is not going to risk incurring the wrath of millions of black Americans by insisting on deletions, Lee said, adding, “They know they’re being watched very closely on this.”

In an attack that has boosted his film’s profile, Lee has relentlessly gone after the studio--and the industry as a whole--ever since “Malcolm X” went over budget last March and a completion bond company assumed control, ordering him to trim the length to no more than two hours and 15 minutes. In May, Lee announced that he had turned to a group of black celebrities such as Michael Jordan and Bill Cosby to help him complete the film.

Warner Bros. reached an agreement with the bond company two days after Lee’s news conference, footing extra bills and allowing the film to be finished.

Lee, stung by the studio’s failure to bail him out earlier, has bitterly complained that many Hollywood movies with far humbler ambitions than “Malcolm X” cost much more than $35 million. “Warner Bros. has gotten the biggest bargain in the world,” he asserted this week.

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Warner Bros. gave in on the length question after top executives screened an early cut. “We liked what we saw,” Robert G. Friedman, worldwide president for advertising and publicity, said earlier this summer. “We made a decision not to get involved in a pissing match. We didn’t want to do anything to hurt the movie.”

Asked whether the length is a problem, some exhibitors said they prefer shorter movies that they can screen twice in an evening instead of once. Nevertheless, they pointed out that movies such as “JFK” and “Dances With Wolves” did very good business.

“It’s just a matter of taking the time to work out a good show schedule,” said Tony Adamson, director of marketing and advertising for AMC Theaters, which has 254 theaters in major cities.

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Like other exhibitors, Adamson has yet to see “Malcolm X,” but based on the trailer he believes that the film will have “some crossover appeal” beyond black audiences. “He (Malcolm X) was part of Americana. A lot of other cultures are going to be interested in seeing that type of film.”

Michael Patrick, president of Carmike Cinemas, which has 378 theaters in smaller cities, said, “This should be one of the pictures where all we have to do is put up the show times.” Lee’s name “combined with the problems you had in L.A.” are factors likely to contribute to the movie’s success, he noted.

Taking some marketing decisions into his own hands, Lee for months has been selling T-shirts and baseball caps emblazoned with an “X” at Spike’s Joint, a store in Brooklyn that offers paraphernalia promoting earlier Lee movies as well as a variety of sports clothes. Two Spike’s Joint stores have opened in Tokyo, Lee said, and a fourth on Los Angeles’ Melrose Avenue may be ready by the end of September.

Meanwhile, both Adamson and Patrick said they were not unduly concerned about possible security problems that might arise from the film’s incendiary subject matter. Malcolm X, according to the press kit issued by Warner Bros., “turned the tables on America’s conventional assumption of its role in society by stating that blacks were morally, physically and intellectually superior to whites and would therefore assume their rightful place at the top of society before long.”

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The exhibitors said they could count on help from Warner Bros. should trouble develop. “Just how much (security will be needed) will depend on the location,” Patrick said. “We don’t expect great attendance in Wyoming, so security will not be as heavy as we will have in Alabama.”


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