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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

Maybe it's just osmosis. Brown has worked with Lee since "She's Gotta Have It." He was head editor on both "School Daze" and "Do the Right Thing" and is back on board for "Malcolm X," where he is also directing second-unit scenes. (Brown's other editing credits include "Salaam Bombay!" and "Truth or Dare.") As a 10-year friend, he may be uniquely qualified to answer that often-posed question: "What does Spike Lee really think of white people?"

"It's a really stupid question," Brown says. "But I think a lot of people draw these strange conclusions about Spike from his statements about wanting more black people involved in movies--and the fact that he goes out of his way to really hire them. But . . . if you look at his crew, it's more mixed than any crew I've seen. You've gotta be conscious of hiring people of color to right the wrong."

Ross, Spike's longest-term friend/colleague--they've worked together since the 1979 Homecoming Coronation show at Morehouse College--agrees: "This is what we're trying to do as a black film company. We employ all. We employ black. We employ white. We employ women. We employ all kinds of people."

"But first of all . . . there's not a lot of work for black filmmakers." He laughs: "You gotta keep your day job! So, basically we have a working philosophy. . . . We have a commonality about us that keeps us all tight and together. We're trying to be about the work ethic."

Ross tugs at his baseball cap. "I just hope when all is said and done, people will understand that art, in and of itself, is never finished, and what we're trying to bring them is just a slice of a man's life. . . a great life."

"I love those Hong Kong action movies. I'm a big Tsui ("Peking Opera Blues") Hark fan," Ernest Dickerson confesses.

With his lush lighting and jazzily intricate camera movements, Dickerson has become a genuine photographic star; one of the American Society of Cinematographers' youngest members, he was sponsored by Nestor Almendros ("Days of Heaven"). Dickerson met Lee at NYU Film School and has shot all of Lee's films since his final NYU student project, "Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads"--which starred Monty Ross. On the set, they sit side by side, functioning, by now, almost like a double-headed creator.

"Photographically, in 'Malcolm X' I'm trying to use light in different ways and styles to show different stages in Malcolm's life. . . . I've actually changed the filtration and color structure. I worked it out with (40 Acres production designer) Wynn Thomas: When he's a hood and a hustler, I wanted to get the feeling that Malcolm X was not born yet, that he was in the womb, waiting to be born.

"I think a lot of times, photographic style, any kind of dramatic style, comes out of your limitations as well as your advantages. . . . 'Mo' Better Blues' and 'Jungle Fever' were the first films where we didn't feel we were time-constricted and had to make compromises. Even in 'Do the Right Thing,' we were rushing."

Producer Marvin Worth was once Lenny Bruce's manager; his longish gray hair, leather jacket, encyclopedic knowledge and wit, easy profanity and irreverence stamp him as a lifetime hipster.

Now, sitting in a studio limousine on 116th Street, Worth muses about the bad times we're in. As a Jewish producer, how does he feel about the charges of anti-Semitism leveled against his director, charges that so infuriated Lee that he wrote an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, "I am not an anti-Semite," and briefly planned an intro for "Jungle Fever" telling anyone who did think he was an anti-Semite that they "could kiss my black ass-- two times. " Did Worth have troubles with the portrayal of the fast-talking, ebullient, money-loving Flatbush brothers in "Mo' Better Blues"? "You know," says Worth, "I really don't know what all the fuss was about. Hell, I knew lots of club owners like that."

A few blocks from 116th Street and Temple Seven restaurant, the "X" crew sets up a traveling shot that looks like Harlem Fellini. A row of seven "hookers"--resplendent in hot purple shorts, split skirts, leopard skin jackets, nylons, colored bras and garter belts line up in front of a blasted block and a vacant lot filled with rubble. Gaudy pimps and seedy, furtive customers are scattered among them, and the cold is so intense that after every take, production assistants have to whip fur coats over the game but freezing ladies.

Washington, as Malcolm, is supposed to pass these pros, oblivious to carnal allure, while ace Steadicam operator Ted Churchill backs up quickly ahead of him. But there's been such a festive air--the girls posing for a raucous still with Spike--that on the 7th take, Denzel Washington's iron resolve finally snaps. After the first "prostitute" beckons, he succumbs, charges up the staircase and starts to carry her through the door. "Cut! Cut!" Spike yells, while the crew cheers.

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