New York--He's gotta have it. And he's gonna get it.
That is, his "Malcolm X." The one he fought for shamelessly, employing every trick in his considerable bag, crushing his way through controversy after controversy on sheer will and the nerves of a cat burglar, called racist by some and betrayer of the faith by others, just pushing onward through $35 million of Warner Brothers' money, even cutting his own salary by two-thirds to bring the film in on time.
"This is it!" he says. "Exactly the way I want it. There won't be a director's cut on laser disk coming out in a couple of years. This is the director's cut."
The filmmaker, a 35-year-old with a teen's scrawny, playground-honed body and a professor's wise eyes the size of headlamps blown larger still by the amplifying lenses of his famous specs, twists like a pretzel, squirms and knits and sometimes seems to rise off the couch to strut, his Nikes akimbo, his jeans taut, as if he's dying to get out and shoot hoops. But no: He sits in a New York hotel room as he explains the whole long story of his fight to bring Malcolm, his Malcolm, to the screen.
And in this world, one mythic figure seems to run rampant, sometimes surprising even Lee. Lee is in awe of what this fellow has accomplished; he seems, in some way, not connected to him at all. It's almost as if when Spike Lee gets in trouble, he can whistle and a super figure will come hurtling out of the sky to kick butt and blow aside his enemies.
This figure is "Spikelee," whom Lee discusses dispassionately or passionately, as the case may be, in the third person, declaiming, "Spikelee never said this!" or "Spikelee did say that!"
The pressure's on
And sometimes Spikelee himself seems to occupy Spike Lee, take over his body, get him to yowling a bit. Spikelee, for example, gives up the carefully modulated grammar and chooses instead the bright but rough poetry of the streets. A reporter, perhaps unwisely, tells him what stress she was under when she was writing a piece on Malcolm for her newspaper, and he swells in animation and power and indignation. "That ain't the same! That ain't stress! Stress is when the whole damn world is in your face saying 'Don't f it up!' That's what stress is! We had to make a great film, no ifs, ands or buts!"
How did he get through such pressure?
"You don't think about it. It's like coming to bat with the bases loaded or trying to sink free throws with the game on the line. You think about it, and you're dead. You think about it afterward, when you've done it. But you just do it, that's all."
He's asked about his first exposure to Malcolm X, the man.
"I can't remember exactly when I first read the book," he recalls, trying to put a finger on his first experience with Alex Haley's "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." "It was probably junior high school. But I remember thinking, 'This is the most important book I'll ever read.' "
Timing is everything
What happened next was timing.
"Everything is timing," Lee confirms, "and this is the right time for this movie. It came to us just as Denzel [Washington, who plays the title role] and I had acquired a little clout."
How it came to them at that moment in history is another story altogether, involving the producer Marvin Worth, who had owned rights to the book since the early '70s and had been nursing it along, through screenwriters as varied as James Baldwin and David Mamet and Charles Fuller, ever since. Nevertheless, come it did, in the form of a $35 million budget and a $3 million payoff for Lee.
"I don't think I was ready until then. Those first five films were definitely preparation. I did not then have the necessary skills to make it. This was a huge film. I would not have been ready. Everything after will be post-Malcolm."
Asked how he knew he was ready, his eyes light up mischievously.
"When I signed the contract."
Walking a tightrope
He's asked about the troubling question of truth as balanced against storytelling necessities, such as drama and humor.
"You have to walk a tightrope between history and entertainment. It's not a documentary, and you do have a license. But you can't misuse that license, take advantage of that license."
It's a delicate issue, because there were so many Malcolms. There was Malcolm Little, called Detroit Red, a zooty, conked pimp and petty thief who ultimately did seven years of hard time in a Massachusetts prison; there's No. 945679, the prisoner, hard-core all the way, so full of rage he can hardly function; there's Malcolm the Muslim convert, remaking himself by reading the dictionary a word at a time; there's Malcolm the Muslim minister, front man for Elijah Muhammed and prime hater of the blue-eyed devils, attracting in his eloquent fury first a following and then a throng, becoming more and more popular than Elijah himself; there's Malcolm the exile, bitterly dumped by his father-surrogate; there's Malcolm the pilgrim, alone in Mecca, struggling to deal with the hate within him; there's Malcolm the humanitarian, who found it possible to forgive those whom he had hated so passionately and envision a multicultural, multiracial world; and there's Malcolm the martyr, dying on the floor of a Harlem dance floor, shot to pieces before his own children by ideological enemies.
A Spikelee vision
So who owns Malcolm?
"Malcolm is a public figure," says Lee, somewhat stonily. "Everybody owns him. Everybody has a right to an opinion. But they do not own the movie. When it comes down to the get down, it's going to be a Spikelee vision. Now maybe it won't be Betty Shabazz's Malcolm, but it's mine. You can ask her."
Later in the day, Dr. Betty Shabazz, who is Malcolm X's widow and now an administrator at New York's Medgar Evers University, is indeed asked.
Her answer is judicious.
"I see [in the film] someone who is portraying my husband in his public postures. I want audiences to basically understand what his agenda was -- and that is freedom, by any means possible, for members of the African diaspora."
Malcolm in full
The movie turns out to be quite a reasonable piece of work, one that sees Malcolm whole and chronicles his shifts in personality and rage with a good deal of clarity.
It's certainly not full of supposition or paranoia on crucial issues such as the affiliation of his four killers, who clearly seem to spring from some bitter backwater of Islamic disaffection, yet also appear to act independently of outside order. It portrays Malcolm's ultimate break with the Nation of Islam, particularly with founder Elijah Muhammed.
It also portrays the less seemly aspects of Malcolm, the part of him those who believe him a saint or those who hoped to make a lot of money off him might be more pleased to see washed away. It depicts a brilliant orator who does indeed become almost smug as his power and reputation grow and is capable of saying things that reflect poorly on himself as well as his movement, such as the controversial claim, upon the death of John F. Kennedy, that "All the chickens are coming home to roost."
Asked if there was any attempt by the corporation sponsoring the film to mute the statement, Spikelee shovels aside Spike Lee and takes up residence on the couch: "Warner Brothers wanted to cut the balls off it! They flew out four executives in a Lear jet to have a meeting with me! They wanted to cut that, they wanted me to cut the Rodney King footage under the credits, where we come out swinging, they wanted me to cut Ossie Davis' funeral oration at the end. They're about making money. They're against anything that will hurt the money-making prospects of the movie. But we weren't going along with that!"
Mired in controversy
Lee's insistence on using the King footage was just one of the many controversies surrounding the project. In another, he used his considerable clout to try to remove white director Norman Jewison. Jewison eventually resigned from the project.
Lee denies he's a racist and even goes so far as to name films by white directors on black subjects that he admires, such as Martin Ritt's "Sounder," Paul Schrader's "Blue Collar" and Michael Roemer's "Nothing But a Man." He even teaches such films at his course in African-American cinema at Harvard.
"Spikelee" says Spike Lee, "has never said black on black and white on white."
"But," responds Spikelee, "there are specific cases where that don't go! I made 'Malcolm' for blacks. If you make it for whites, you would irritate the people who could benefit the most from it."
He also denies -- hotly -- a charge made in an Esquire magazine article, where he is supposed to have said "he hates the cracker asses" of white people.
"Spikelee never said he hates anybody's cracker ass," he says with some fidgety agitation. "I mean, what the is that all about? Of course not. They're trying to vilify me!"
But he was able to keep most of these problems out of the one arena where they would be most destructive: the set.
"The trick was to keep that stuff behind the camera. You couldn't let it happen in front of the camera."
By accounts, in this effort he was quite successful.
According to Al Freeman Jr., the distinguished actor who plays Elijah Muhammed, "What I saw was the bustling set of a major motion picture and Spike saying 'Hurry up' all the time. I would go to him with script changes, and he would say, 'Yes, yes, that works.' He was very open, but he was still the authority figure."
Like a cheerleader
And Angela Bassett, who plays Malcolm's wife and widow Betty, recalls, "He was like a cheerleader. I'd watch him when I wasn't working and he was twisting and turning like he was watching a basketball game. I'm getting chills thinking about it."
And Denzel Washington, who also starred in Lee's "Mo' Better Blues," simply smiles and says, "We like working together. I hope we do it some more."
What appears to irk Lee the most profoundly is a double standard applied to black and white behavior.
"When my film opens, the whole LAPD SWAT and anti-riot squad will be waiting in parking lots, just in case. Why is it when black folks go to a movie, it's a problem? But nobody said when TTC 'Terminator 2' opened and a lot of cops got killed in that. Or when you have a movie poster when a white person has a gun. That's OK. But when a black person has a gun, that's a problem."
He sees the same issue in play in his most recent controversy, where he stated that he preferred to talk to African-American reporters.
"I never said I'd only speak to black reporters, but I am getting a little gun-shy about speaking to whites. Blacks seem more sensitive: They never ask dumb questions like 'Do you have any white friends?' But the truth is, all the high-power people in Hollywood have publicists, and they dictate who they'll talk to and who they won't. All I'm doing is what everyone else is doing. And none of these places have any black people on their staffs, even. Not one. It's about jobs and opportunities. I have a little bit of juice right now, and I'm going to use it."
His embattled stance, he believes, has not endeared him to the Hollywood establishment.
Asked if he thought he'd get an Oscar, he said, "Denzel, yeah. Me? Don't bet the house on it." Spike Lee paused, then laughed as Spikelee stole back into his body for one last giddy moment. "Because I hate their cracker asses!"