LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Spike Lee : Espousing the Multiple Messages of His Malcolm X

<i> Gayle Pollard Terry is an editorial writer for The Times</i>

Spike Lee is more than a filmmaker. Consummate businessman, controversial storyteller, culture chronicler, he controls more than the images he puts on movie screens. Through his films--a prolific six pictures in seven years--he exposes the intimacies, conflicts and achievements of African- Americans. Thematically, he attacks big issues: race and class, interracial romance, police brutality--all with a boldness that forces internecine, and international, debate.

His powerful epic “Malcolm X” shows the evolution of a teen-age hustler, thief and convict who becomes an angry, charismatic, separatist, race-monger and national leader. In Lee’s film, as in life, Malcolm X ultimately transcends his bitter prejudices to declare he is not a racist before he is martyred.

In the same way that another epic, “JFK,” introduced a President who has become more myth than memory to a generation of young Americans who viewed the movie without the constriction of a historical filter, Lee’s 3-hour-and-21-minute work introduces an African-American legend to white audiences whose only reference to the man may be those ubiquitous X caps. Most view the movie without the biases of memory.

Malcolm X needs no introduction to black America. He is an icon to the hip-hop generation, the rap stars who are the griots of their generation, the college students who venerate him in their studies. He is a prophet of self-discipline and self-determination to middle-aged black conservatives and liberals who, for separate reasons, espouse his prescient call for black empowerment.


Lee personifies that au so courant philosophy. Without argument, he is the most successful black filmmaker--as well as the most controversial. Lee, a demanding director, is not easygoing nor always easy to work with--as Warner Brothers discovered. But he is successful on his own terms.

A Brooklynite, Spike Lee, 35, is a third-generation graduate of the prestigious black Morehouse College in Atlanta. In an interview last week in the offices of his Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks Inc. in Brooklyn, Lee was intense, passionate, opinionated--and gentlemanly.

* Question: Was Malcolm X talked about at your college, Morehouse?

Answer: Yes, he was. You have to also realize that Dr. King also went to Morehouse. So you know who they’re going to push--Dr. King ahead of Malcolm. But if you survey the students now, most of them . . . their feelings more are in line with Malcolm than with Dr. King.

Q: Why is there such a national resonance about Malcolm X? Why is there such a fascination with a man whom most of white America hated 30 years ago?

A: We’re getting away from those days where we have to live and breathe about what white folks think about us. That day is over. I say that black folks in this country want to take May 19 off as a national holiday; that’s Malcolm’s birthday. Let’s do it. We don’t need an act of Congress. We don’t need anybody else’s sanction. . . . Just take off.

Q: How would you explain the resonance in the larger community?

A: Malcolm X is a lot less threatening to white America because he’s been dead 30 years. But there were a whole lot of black folks back then, who felt that Malcolm X was crazy also. You still have Uncle Tom, handkerchief-head Negroes like Carl Rowan who write a column that Malcolm X is unfit to be a hero for today’s youth.

Q: Is that a generation gap?

A. It’s not a generation gap. Because Malcolm X and Carl Rowan went at it back then. And Malcolm had his bouts with Roy Wilkins (of the NAACP), and those type of Negroes of the world.

Q: As Malcolm X became increasingly humanistic, how close did his final philoso - phies come to those of Dr. King?

A: Their philosophies were coming together. It wasn’t only in one direction.

Q: Your film is rich in black history. Does it open a door on black culture for a broader audience?

A: That is my hope. If people who are non-black go see this film, and they gain some greater understanding into African-American history, that’s great, because it’s definitely not being taught in the school system.

We had a national press junket. . . . So many of the white journalists said they felt cheated, because they were not taught anything about Malcolm X in school. Or they were taught he’s a preacher of hatred and violence--anti-white. They felt robbed. They said the first thing they’re going to do is to go out and read the book. And that’s what we want this film to do. We’ve never said that once you come see “Malcolm X,” that’s all you need to know about Malcolm X. We do hope that it spurs further interest in Malcolm X. And people go out and read other books . . . but first read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

Q: When you read the autobiography, did it mean anything to you?

A: I became acquainted with Malcolm X in junior high school, when we had to read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” for a class. It meant a lot. That’s the most important book I (have) ever read. It changed the way I viewed everything . . . the world . . . my relation to the world (as) an African-American living in this country.

Q: How did it change the way you viewed the world?

A: You grow up in school. . . . I was told I, too, could be the President of the United States . . . all that mumbo jumbo. And it’s just not true if you’re black, or a woman, or a minority.

Q: Are there different messages for different audiences?

A: Definitely. Because Malcolm X is so different. He was so many different people. He was constantly evolving. People are going to pick and choose which Malcolm is more in line with their own feelings, their own political thoughts.

Q: How can Malcolm X be a hero to Clarence Thomas and to Chuck D, the rap star?

A: He was several different people. I know Chuck D from Public Enemy. He probably admires the Malcolm before the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca).

Q: What does Malcolm X say to young black men?

A: If young black men are listening, if they’ve read the book and they see the film, they’ll see how much Malcolm X put stress on education.

If young black men are really listening to what Malcolm X said, we would not be killing each other at the rate we’re doing. We would not be involved in drugs. We would not be impregnating our sisters at the rate we’re doing. There’s a whole lot of stuff we would not be doing, if we were listening to what Malcolm X talked about.

Q: When I saw the movie at the Baldwin Theater, in Southwest Los Angeles, and Malcolm X was preaching, the woman in front of me said “Teach!” Can this movie teach? Is that too much to expect?

A: No, I don’t think that’s too much to expect from a movie. There are different types of movies. There’s nothing wrong with people going to a comedy. There is nothing wrong with any form of entertainment where it’s just to make you feel good, make you laugh. . . . At the same time, that should not be the only entertainment available for people. So with Malcolm X, I think there is a hybrid of people getting educated and also getting entertained at the same time, because the reality is that this is a Hollywood film. Thirty-four million dollars were spent on it. Nobody’s going to spend $34 million on a documentary.

Q: Also in the movie, when the Fruit of Islam (Muslim brothers) march to the hospital, the woman in front of me said “Strong brothers! Strong black men!” Can this movie encourage that?

A: Yes, it can encourage that. I’ve seen the film three times with an audience. And every time that scene comes on, black folks break out in applause when the people march because . . . right then, in that scene, people feel such a sense of pride for strong black men with backbone, with conviction. We’re going to make a stand--unarmed--and face up to the police.

Q: There was another place in the movie--in the temple--when they unfold the banner about protecting our most valuable property, our women.

A: We didn’t make that up. That came from archival footage. That banner was at many of the rallies. A lot of people might have problems with that banner, where it states women as property. But, in the Nation of Islam, you have to really be honest, women were really not granted the same respect or rights as men. They were told to follow behind their men.

Q: On the other hand, I think a few women applauded because it was so respectful.

A: But another 50% will be offended by that banner, because women are being looked at as property.

Q: What about the portrayal of Malcolm as a devoted husband and attentive father? Perhaps chauvinistic, certainly by today’s standards, but there weren’t the rumors about him, about womanizing.

A: Never! There was no rumor, because Malcolm was on the straight and narrow.

Q: There weren’t rumors about him in the same way there were about Elijah Muhammad or other black leaders. And we see a different portrayal of a black man as a husband and father.

A: Malcolm X was that. That’s something that people really didn’t get a chance to see or read about. . . . If you write about Malcolm X being a father and a husband, and a caring and warm, sensitive human man, then that’s going to give him the image of being a human being. . . . That’s not something the white media wanted back then.

Q: What’s the message to black women?

A: One message that I hope black women get from it is: There are still a lot of brothers out there who are like that. Maybe we should stop this condemnation, this dogging out every single black man, because maybe one dogged you out. That doesn’t mean all the brothers are like that.

Q: What are the messages to other segments of society?

A: Malcolm X--whether you’re gay, Hispanic, or a woman, or any other minority--can still be a powerful inspiration to all of those groups because here was a man who was fighting against oppression. And all those other groups are trying to do the same thing.

Q: How does this movie fit in with the riots in L.A.?

A: It fits in perfectly . . . but I would not call them riots. I use the word uprising instead. Because riots say that something was not thought out; it was just reckless abandon. But there was a definite motive behind the uprising. It was a direct response . . . to those cowardly cops . . . that acquittal by the Simi Valley all-white jury. A great injustice was felt. A great injury was felt. And, that frustration was vented.

Q. How does that fit in with the movie?

A: What Malcolm X talked about back then, 30 years ago, is still with us today. Black folks in this country are still second-class citizens. And that is why we began the film with the American flag burning down to an X with the Rodney King footage, to show that not much progress has happened. And please, don’t think of this film as just a fossil, a dinosaur, a historical document. The stuff that Malcolm X was talking about is still relevant today. And the biggest example of it is this videotape that the whole world saw. The whole world saw. And yet, justice was not done.

Q: How does the movie fit in with the change in the Administration in Washington?

A: We hope that Mr. Clinton and his sidekick, Mr. Gore, can see the film, and all the people in Congress and the Senate, because they need to see it. I read something that Gore was on MTV and some students asked if he was going to see the film, and he said would. Politicians can learn a lot from artists because artists can express the mood of the people. I think with Republicans being swept out of office, the general mood of this country is on the upswing. There’s a lot of optimism. There’s a lot of optimistic people coming out from Malcolm X.

A lot of people come of out the theater inspired, really genuinely moved by what they’ve seen. They refocus themselves, and what they have to do.

Q: How does the film fit in with South Africa? You ended it with Nelson Mandela speaking Malcolm’s words.

A: It fits in naturally, because Malcolm, in his later days, talked about Pan-Africanism. He wanted people to know that African-Americans here should definitely connect with our brothers and sisters in Africa. What happens in Soweto has a direct effect on what happens in South Central L.A., or Bed-Stuy (Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant), or Harlem, or Chicago’s South Side. And, there is a natural link between Malcolm, there is a progression, there is a link between Malcolm and Nelson Mandela.

Q: What’s the progression?

A: That . . . that we’re always going to have black leaders who are going to fight for us.

Q: Did going to South Africa and seeing apartheid firsthand change you?

A. Yes, that changed me. Because . . . it is not the same reading about it in the New York Times, or to watch . . . NBC Nightly News. When you see . . . when you’re there, and you see the conditions that black folks live under--those are not townships, those are concentration camps. And despite all of that, you could still see the great spirit of the . . . the black South Africans. And they’re going to . . . they’re going to get their freedom, one way or the other.

Q: What about the flap with The Los Angeles Times, ( in which the paper’s Calendar section refused) your request to be interviewed by a black journalist. Why introduce race? Why the preference?

A. First of all, tell me where there is one thing in America where race has nothing to do with it. What I did is nothing different from Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Madonna or Clint Eastwood. All they do when they wish to do press, they pick and choose who they are going to speak to. Oliver Stone is not going to have Gloria Steinem interview him.

At the same time, my goal is to introduce the white media, the white newspapers to African-American writers. Because, if you look at their mastheads, they do not have African-American writers. So, I’m making the suggestion to use African-American journalists.

Ralph Wiley wrote the cover story in Premiere magazine. Joe Wood wrote the cover story in Rolling Stone. (Novelist) John Edgar Wideman wrote a story in Vogue, and these writers would never be hired if I didn’t insist they be given work, and they are qualified.

I think African-American writers would approach with some sensitivity to me, (actor) Denzel (Washington) and certainly Malcolm X. So I don’t think the question is what Spike is asking. The bigger question is why these publications refuse to hire African-American journalists. They can no longer say there are no qualified African-American journalists to hire. One editor said, “If we can’t hire a black writer for Malcolm X, when will we ever hire an African-American writer?” Subsequently, Premiere magazine hired two senior black editors. That’s why the controversy. I was putting the spotlight on their hiring practices, in general. Why don’t they have any African-American writers? If you want access to myself, Denzel and to the set, these are the writers who you can pick and choose from.

Q: Does the success of this film mean more big-budget films for you?

A: It means more big-budget films for all black filmmakers . . . more black bio-pics at this level, at this scale. Hollywood does everything by precedent. They’ll be watching this film very closely. They’re going to be amazed by how many white Americans come see this film. They will no longer be able to say that white America will not go see a film with black people in it that’s a drama, that’s not a comedy, that’s not a musical. And Eddie Murphy isn’t in it.