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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

February 02, 1992|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | Michael Wilmington writes about film for The Times

NEW YORK — 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 \o7 I \f7 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, \o7 this \f7 time, at the point where director Lee usually says "Cut! Check the gate!" he boisterously yells: \o7 "Ira! My man!" \f7 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--\o7 slowly \f7 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 \o7 supposed \f7 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.

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