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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

Lee, who liked "JFK" enough to watch it twice, sees conspiratorial possibilities in Malcolm's death too. "The FBI may have been in on all those assassinations. Every one: King, the Kennedys. . . . Now we've got a President (Bush) who was head of the CIA. So you know what kind of man he is.

"George Bush is really slick." Lee adds, referring to the recent nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. "(He) says: 'How can you call me a racist? I got a black guy!' He's full of (expletive): Clarence Thomas. Because those guys: They get up so far, and they think they're not black. 'This is America. Color doesn't matter. You can pull yourself up by the bootstraps. . . .' Then, the minute they set some fire to his ass, Clarence Thomas says (whining): 'It's because I'm black! It's a high-tech lynching! It's racist!' " "

"You know, I don't think there's a big difference between George Bush and David Duke. . . ."

The night when ex-Ku Klux Klan head Duke is defeated in the Louisiana governor's race--despite winning 55% of the white vote--Lee and company are filming the key scene in which Malcolm X, at a La Guardia Airport press conference, reveals his changed stand on racial relations.

Lee's crew seems an island of racial harmony and camaraderie in a racially charged city. White line producer Jon Kilik jokes with black line producer Preston Holmes; Dickerson joshes with his white camera operator (Phil Oetiker) and gaffer. And everyone--all races, sexes and colors--is decked out like a raffish sports team, or a group of shoppers from the Brooklyn boutique "Spike's Joint."

One of the idiosyncrasies of Spike's films--from his first abortive 1985 project, "The Messenger" on, has been the way they generate their own couture. Here, Kilik wears a white and black 40 Acres and a Mule letter jacket. Holmes has a blue "School Daze" coat. A woman crew member has a "She's Gotta Have It" white T-shirt with "Please, baby, please baby, baby baby, please" on the back.

Ernest Dickerson is plugging his own recent directorial debut with a black "Juice" jacket over a blue "Martha's Vineyard" sweat shirt. And Lee himself, under a rakish red and white bandanna, has a black leather and suede jacket with a red, white and blue "X" on the back and Malcolm on the front.

Fashion statements aside, the sequence is tricky. A crowd of jaded reporters stand ready to hector the newly bearded Malcolm, returning from Mecca, and Lee is shooting Malcolm as a man at the vortex. Two cameras film him simultaneously--one close up, one further back, both circling in opposite directions--and the closer camera, which will be filmed occasionally by the one behind it, is an actual period 16-millimeter model, operated by crew-people disguised as newsmen. The illusion extends through the sound recording; according to boom operator Stu Deutsch, period mikes are being used.

At the rear, Denzel Washington stands silently. His colleagues are in awe of the way he's caught Malcolm X's look and spirit. Costume designer Ruthe Carter says, "It's spooky. . . . When we see him with the facial hair, the '60s clothes . . . he looks just like Malcolm X. And when I go back to my notebooks, to those photographs of the real Malcolm X . . . he looks like Denzel Washington. " Lee himself calls Washington's performance his prime joy. "I'm just amazed every day. . . . I'm in awe of Denzel. He's worked almost every single day of this film; had a tremendous amount to prepare: A month rehearsal for the dance. . . . That's been my biggest pleasure: just watching him work."

Now, as Washington enters the lobby with Bassett and three children beside him, he remarks: "It's interesting. I'm so tired that the fatigue works for me. I'll try to do as little acting as I possibly can. That's hard to do."

Yet, as the scene progresses, he keeps nimbly changing readings. Like Dennis Hopper, he seems an actor who hates to repeat himself. "Today," he keeps saying slowly and meaningfully to his interrogators, with different inflections, but the same immense, warming grin, "I have friends that are black, brown, red, yellow-- and white."

"The white Spike Lee!" Mike Tyson kept calling editor Barry Brown at a recent Harlem shoot, during a reconstruction of the famed Apollo Theater. "Look! It's the white Spike Lee!"

And, indeed, Brown, who graduated from high school in Montgomery, Ala., and who has recently grown a goatee to go along with his shortish stature and glasses, has begun to slightly resemble his longtime friend and employer.

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