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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

"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."

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