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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Spike Lee : Espousing the Multiple Messages of His Malcolm X

November 29, 1992|Gayle Pollard Terry | Gayle Pollard Terry is an editorial writer for The Times

Spike Lee is more than a filmmaker. Consummate businessman, controversial storyteller, culture chronicler, he controls more than the images he puts on movie screens. Through his films--a prolific six pictures in seven years--he exposes the intimacies, conflicts and achievements of African- Americans. Thematically, he attacks big issues: race and class, interracial romance, police brutality--all with a boldness that forces internecine, and international, debate.

His powerful epic "Malcolm X" shows the evolution of a teen-age hustler, thief and convict who becomes an angry, charismatic, separatist, race-monger and national leader. In Lee's film, as in life, Malcolm X ultimately transcends his bitter prejudices to declare he is not a racist before he is martyred.

In the same way that another epic, "JFK," introduced a President who has become more myth than memory to a generation of young Americans who viewed the movie without the constriction of a historical filter, Lee's 3-hour-and-21-minute work introduces an African-American legend to white audiences whose only reference to the man may be those ubiquitous X caps. Most view the movie without the biases of memory.

Malcolm X needs no introduction to black America. He is an icon to the hip-hop generation, the rap stars who are the griots of their generation, the college students who venerate him in their studies. He is a prophet of self-discipline and self-determination to middle-aged black conservatives and liberals who, for separate reasons, espouse his prescient call for black empowerment.

Lee personifies that au so courant philosophy. Without argument, he is the most successful black filmmaker--as well as the most controversial. Lee, a demanding director, is not easygoing nor always easy to work with--as Warner Brothers discovered. But he is successful on his own terms.

A Brooklynite, Spike Lee, 35, is a third-generation graduate of the prestigious black Morehouse College in Atlanta. In an interview last week in the offices of his Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks Inc. in Brooklyn, Lee was intense, passionate, opinionated--and gentlemanly.

* Question: Was Malcolm X talked about at your college, Morehouse?

Answer: Yes, he was. You have to also realize that Dr. King also went to Morehouse. So you know who they're going to push--Dr. King ahead of Malcolm. But if you survey the students now, most of them . . . their feelings more are in line with Malcolm than with Dr. King.

Q: Why is there such a national resonance about Malcolm X? Why is there such a fascination with a man whom most of white America hated 30 years ago?

A: We're getting away from those days where we have to live and breathe about what white folks think about us. That day is over. I say that black folks in this country want to take May 19 off as a national holiday; that's Malcolm's birthday. Let's do it. We don't need an act of Congress. We don't need anybody else's sanction. . . . Just take off.

Q: How would you explain the resonance in the larger community?

A: Malcolm X is a lot less threatening to white America because he's been dead 30 years. But there were a whole lot of black folks back then, who felt that Malcolm X was crazy also. You still have Uncle Tom, handkerchief-head Negroes like Carl Rowan who write a column that Malcolm X is unfit to be a hero for today's youth.

Q: Is that a generation gap?

A. It's not a generation gap. Because Malcolm X and Carl Rowan went at it back then. And Malcolm had his bouts with Roy Wilkins (of the NAACP), and those type of Negroes of the world.

Q: As Malcolm X became increasingly humanistic, how close did his final philoso - phies come to those of Dr. King?

A: Their philosophies were coming together. It wasn't only in one direction.

Q: Your film is rich in black history. Does it open a door on black culture for a broader audience?

A: That is my hope. If people who are non-black go see this film, and they gain some greater understanding into African-American history, that's great, because it's definitely not being taught in the school system.

We had a national press junket. . . . So many of the white journalists said they felt cheated, because they were not taught anything about Malcolm X in school. Or they were taught he's a preacher of hatred and violence--anti-white. They felt robbed. They said the first thing they're going to do is to go out and read the book. And that's what we want this film to do. We've never said that once you come see "Malcolm X," that's all you need to know about Malcolm X. We do hope that it spurs further interest in Malcolm X. And people go out and read other books . . . but first read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."

Q: When you read the autobiography, did it mean anything to you?

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