Spike Lee lobbies black publishers to support 'Malcolm X'


Director Spike Lee came to Baltimore yesterday and implored African American newspaper publishers to do the right thing by supporting his new movie, "Malcolm X."

The movie focuses on the life of the slain black leader and is scheduled for a November release. Based on a screenplay by the late writers James Baldwin and Arnold Perl, the film stars Denzel Washington as Malcolm X.

"I need the support of the black press," Mr. Lee told about 200 people gathered at the Hyatt Regency Hotel for the National Newspaper Publishers Association convention.

In turn, Mr. Lee told the newspaper executives, he is "demanding" that Warner Bros. -- the film's domestic distributors -- take out advertisements in black newspapers.

He is drumming up editorial support partly because the movie has sparked controversy almost from the moment Mr. Lee began the project. Some black leaders have told Mr. Lee they do not feel he is capable of presenting an accurate portrayal of Malcolm X. However, his remarks about the film were greeted with applause by yesterday's audience.

"You don't have to love my movies," Mr. Lee told the crowd, each of whom had been given a Malcolm X hat. "But it's very important that we all get behind this film. It angers me that people are talking about this film and they haven't even seen it yet."

Malcolm X, who was assassinated in 1965, educated himself while in prison and eventually became a leader who preached black pride and self-reliance.

Mr. Lee hopes that the movie, which will focus on several decades of Malcolm X's life, will fill in the historical gaps many young people have about the popular leader's life.

"This film is going to be the back-up behind the T-shirts and hats," said Mr. Lee, who was dressed in a conservative gray suit.

"Most young people don't read anymore, I am sorry to say. I hope they will be inspired and see how heroic Malcolm X was and how much he was into education."

Mr. Lee said a lot is riding on the success of his new film because he believes Hollywood executives do not financially support black films to the extent they support white films.

The only exception, he said, are projects by actor Eddie Murphy.

Repeating his familiar refrain, Mr. Lee said that although Hollywood "is in love with black people right now," movie executives do not spend an equitable amount promoting and marketing black movies the way they do for white movies.

Warner Bros. "only wanted to give us $20 million," he said, noting that amount is not excessive by industry standards. They eventually increased the amount to $28 million, but the budget had grown about $10 million more. To finish the movie -- parts of which were filmed in New York, Egypt and South Africa -- without cutting the length, Mr. Lee put up $2 million of his own money. But that was still not enough.

"I was tapped out after that," said the director, whose films include "She's Gotta Have It," "School Daze," "Jungle Fever," and "Do the Right Thing." So he "sent out an SOS" to financially well-heeled blacks.

"I thought, we got too many Negroes . . . too many black folks with money for me to close down," he said. Some of the people who made donations were Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan, Tracy Chapman, Janet Jackson and Prince.

"This is not a loan, not an investment. This is strictly gifts," he said.

Mr. Lee foresees the day when blacks can do even more. "The next step," he said, "is for African Americans to finance movies totally. It is an important step."

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