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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

In the center of the street, a set visitor in glasses and parka, laughs along. It's John Singleton, whose "Boyz N the Hood" set in South Central L.A., was one of 1991's surprise critical-commercial hits.

Some critics have tried to set Singleton against Lee as potential rivals. And, indeed, Lee makes caustic assessments of some other contemporary black movie makers: "I'm not going to name these films--but a lot of these movies are terrible. There's no craft there. The scripts are no good; the actors are no good. You gotta love filmmaking; you gotta love movies. And the way these movies are made . . . I don't see any love in it."

But he specifically exempts "Boyz N the Hood." "I'm so happy that John Singleton came along," Spike says. "I'm happier than he is. I loved 'Boyz N the Hood.' The first time I saw that film--in Cannes--I was elated. I feel John's a born filmmaker. And he'll be making movies the rest of his life."

The admiration is mutual. "Great! It's phenomenal," Singleton says of Lee shooting "Malcolm X." "Spike was the first person to prove you could make a film with a strong Afro-centered vision and make it be profitable. He didn't have to dilute his work. . . . That's important. And that's why I look up to Spike."

Something is obviously bothering Spike Lee. Sitting in the trailer, he runs down what his family is doing.

"Cinque's trying to get a film," he says softly. "Him and my sister Joie, they just did a pilot for Nickelodeon. David is unit photographer. Chris is workin' at the store (Spike's Joint). Father's in rehab." Pause. "For heroin. He got busted. You didn't know that?"

No.

"It was on the front page of the New York Post four weeks ago. It's something he's been doing a long time."

How long?

"Long time. Twenty years."

The decades after Bill Lee ended his career as bass accompanist for Josh White or Peter, Paul and Mary. The years Spike's mother supported the family as a teacher, dying of cancer in 1978. The years Bill scored his son's films, winning an L.A. Film Critics' award for "Do the Right Thing."

"He just finally got caught. He's an outpatient.

"I was mad at first--because they didn't have to know that he was my father, but he said: 'I'm Spike Lee's father; Spike's my son!' You know: He thought it was gonna save his neck. . . . It was a big thing; it was a lead story.

"I told him, you know: 'You're going to get caught. It's going to be a big thing.' He never believed me. . . . It was a bad habit. It was going to happen sooner or later, so I'm glad it happened when it did. And he's vowed he's going to go straight. We'll see what's going to happen. . . . He's doin' better. That's the most important thing."

Drugs, smack, crack. People trying to blot out reality? Or pain?

"I don't think that's the real reason people do drugs. I'm not a psychiatrist. . . . There were a whole lot of jazz musicians who did heroin. And it just wasn't to blot out pain. It made 'em feel good. Some of them even felt it might make 'em play better. But . . . it's a big problem.

"For me," says Spike, "Malcolm X still lives. Because everything he talked about is still prevalent today. The condition of black people in America; how racism operates. The disunity of black people: That hasn't changed either. That very disunity led to his death."

So what needs to be done? "I don't know if I can answer that. You can't just say: Well, it's drugs. Everybody go to school. Let's bring the nuclear family back. It's too complicated. . . . People don't read anymore. They're not taught to read. They just get plunked down in front of the TVs. . . . And you know, the white kids ain't learnin' either. The whole U.S. education system needs to be overhauled in general. But particularly blacks, Hispanics, minorities: We go to the worst schools."

Critics probably fixate on Spike the spokesperson, because he's so willing to discuss issues like these, but he's not self-fixated. He tends to belittle, for example, his own acting. ("I'm limited. Limited. ") Indeed, when you watch his productions, it's clear that he delights in the idea of a team of filmmakers, hanging together and growing together from film to film.

"The people who are still here," says Spike, "are the people who said, like me, that we cannot rest on our laurels and we have to keep learning. . . . "And that's why Ernest is still here. And that's why Wynn Thomas is still designing the production, Ruthe Carter is still doing the costumes and Robi Reed is still casting. Monty, Jon Kilik, Preston, Randy Fletcher: Some of us have been together since 'She's Gotta Have It,' but everybody else has been here since 'School Daze.' So, the last five picture: It's a team.

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