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Spike Lee Gets by With a Little Help From His Friends : Movies: Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey and Magic Johnson come through with funding for the filmmaker's over-budget 'Malcolm X.'

May 21, 1992|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The behind-the-scenes sparring that has rocked Spike Lee's film "Malcolm X" intensified Wednesday when the noted director said that if he hadn't been financially rescued by several African-American celebrities he would have been forced to shut down post-production.

But attorneys for the completion bond company that took control of the film when it went $5 million over budget shot back that the firm has already spent millions of dollars to keep "Malcolm X" afloat and that Lee has conveniently forgotten that fact. Warner Bros. intends to release the film in November.

Lee said the crisis was precipitated when Century City-based Completion Bond Co. sent a certified letter saying that as of March 27 he must lay off his editing crew or any losses suffered from that date forward would have to be absorbed by Lee.

"We got caught between Warner Bros. and the bond company," Lee said Wednesday. "I did not want to shut down and wait who knows how long until Warner Bros. and the bond company completed what needed to be done. I was already tapped out."

In the past Lee has said that Hollywood is more willing to gamble on big-budget projects by white filmmakers. But Wednesday, even bond company president Bette Smith, who is black, did not escape his criticism.

"Bette Smith is a black woman but (Supreme Court Justice) Clarence Thomas is supposed to be black too," Lee told The Times. "Skin color doesn't mean anything."

But Steven Fayne, an attorney for the bond company, rejected such statements, noting that Smith's firm had supported Lee in the past. Fayne said Lee has only himself to blame for the financial problems that surfaced.

"We've written millions of dollars of checks on this film already . . . all of which he has now conveniently forgotten," Fayne said. "He cost a lot of people a lot of money to get to the point he is right now."

The company, which insured financial backers that the film would be finished on time and within budget, allowed Lee to retain creative control of the film. The movie, starring Denzel Washington, is an epic biographical treatment on the life of the slain black activist Malcolm X.

Lee said that after he received the bond company's strongly worded letter in March, he telephoned a number of friends--people with "some bank"--to help him in his hour of crisis. Those who responded with checks included Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Earvin (Magic) Johnson, Michael Jordan, Prince, Janet Jackson and Peggy Cooper-Cafritz, founder of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington.

"Bill Cosby was the first person I called," Lee added, noting that the phone calls soliciting funds were hard to make. "I was in Los Angeles and he was in New York. I got the check the same day. It was dropped off that evening at my hotel."

Cosby declined to say Wednesday how much money he put into the film. "I was in line with everybody else," he said from Philadelphia, where he is taping the new TV show "You Bet Your Life."

Winfrey also declined to disclose exactly how much money she sent Lee. "I told him I would give him the money because if I were in a similar situation, I hoped someone would do the same for me," she said.

Lee said he saw the outpouring of money as historic.

"It was because of them that we were able to keep working," Lee said. "They kept the payroll going." He stressed that the money he received was not a loan. "It's a gift."

"To me, the story is not about what Warner Bros. isn't doing," he said. "To me, the story is how prominent African-Americans came together and saved the movie."

Marvin Worth, who is producing "Malcolm X," said Wednesday that he was as surprised as anyone to learn that Lee had received stop-gap funding from prominent blacks during the editing process. "I thought I knew everything," Worth said.

Worth had high praise for Warner Bros. and its handling of the movie's finances. "Warners has been terrific," he said, added that the studio had also pumped additional money into the project to keep it going. "Of course they put in extra," he said.

Still, Lee said, "we never had enough."

The director noted that Warner Bros., after seeing the rough cut, "realized it would be foolish not to complete it."

Warner Bros. contractually wanted a movie that was no more than 2 hours and 15 minutes in length, according to bond company attorney Fayne, who explained that it was never the bond company's decision how long to make the movie.

As it now stands, Lee said, "Malcolm X" will probably run "three hours plus. That is not an issue anymore."

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