One can be commercial with a conscience, Spike Lee was explaining to a horde of reporters he convened at his latest money-making venture on Melrose Avenue. Pushed to elaborate, the brash young filmmaker said he would never consider, for instance, selling "X" underwear to make a buck.
"X" caps, "X" jackets, "X" T-shirts, "X" postcards, "X" buttons and "X" pendants are a different story. They're piled to the rafters at his new Hollywood retail store, Spike's Joint West, along with swank $350 jackets, "Stay Black" hats, posters from his six movies and "Follow Me to Spike's Joint" bumper stickers.
Isn't this blatant exploitation, a rowdy press corps wanted to know. Aren't you, Spike, really just shamelessly plugging yourself and your upcoming movie, "Malcolm X"? What would the fiery black leader whose name is on all this merchandise think?
"I will not speak for Malcolm X," Lee shot back. "I will say that Malcolm was about black economic development. That's what I'm about. We're about giving young black kids jobs."
As for making money, "This is what America is about. What does Madonna do? Come on."
Then, as if to vividly illustrate his point, the wiry director burst from his seat, pulled up his "X" shirt and flashed his right nipple.
Lee's original retail outlet in Brooklyn has turned the black middle-class neighborhood of Ft. Greene into a tourist mecca. Sightseeing buses slow on South Elliott Place for a peek at the shop and Lee's nearby production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks.
Melrose Avenue, on the other hand, is already Los Angeles' hippest strip, a place that is listed in every tourist guide and has even spawned its own glitzy television series. It is also located in a census track that has an African-American population of 1%.
Criticism of Lee's chosen site began brewing in the black community weeks before the new store opened its doors Oct. 24. To some, Lee blew his chance to do the right thing when he chose Hollywood over South-Central L.A.
"He's a sell-out," said Maisha Knight, 20, who lives in South-Central. "If you're gonna be black, be black. Don't just talk black. If he really was for the black people and not himself, he'd put his store on Crenshaw, even if he had to take a loss."
Craig Sasser, executive director of the Crenshaw Chamber of Commerce, argues that Lee would not have had to take a loss at all.
"I'm not going to criticize the guy," Sasser said, "but the syndrome is a common one--the mistaken belief that you can't make money in the black community. People try to justify it with economics, but I chalk it up to racism."
As the attacks grew more heated, Lee's associates took note. His main store stayed on Melrose but he opened a kiosk in the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Mall--across the corridor from Magic Johnson's sports store and just off Tom Bradley Court--selling much of the same apparel. And if those locations do well, a South-Central store is not out of the question.
But Lee contends that commitment is the key, not location. A black architecture firm designed the 1,800-square-foot Melrose store, he said, and black interior designers, bankers, graphic designers and public relations specialists were hired too.
Such job creation is what really matters, say those who stand by Lee.
"If he was a person who had abandoned the black community that would be one thing," said Bobby Glanton-Smith, sales and marketing director for Recycling Black Dollars, a group that promotes black businesses. "But I know the man's track record. He's fed a lot of black people by giving them jobs, and when I went up to that store on Melrose I saw people behind the counter who looked like me."
Lee, his "X" cap pushed back on his head, acknowledges that the omnipresent "X" may mean nothing to some of those who wear it. But most show the "X" for a reason, he said, and even for the uninitiated the symbol can serve as a first step to social consciousness.
The crowd that showed up at his recent grand opening reflected the spectrum, ranging from those able to quote passages from Malcolm X's speeches to a young girl who pointed at Lee, pulled at her mother and asked, "Is that Malcolm X?"
Then there were those trying to out-commercialize what was already quite a commercial affair. Among the hundreds of autograph seekers lining the block was a woman in a leopard-skin body suit, leopard-skin pumps and leopard-skin earrings trying to catch Lee's eye. She clutched glossy photos of her two sons, hoping Lee might put them in his next flick.
"It's worth a try," she said. "Maybe he'll call. You never know."
Further back, Shannon Woodland lugged half a dozen of his black-themed paintings to the autograph table with dreams of becoming Lee's personal artist. When his turn finally came, he managed to quickly flip through the canvasses and drop off a business card before the burly security guard yelled, "Next!"
"I'm just trying to make it," Woodland said. "Same as Spike."