Picture This

On the Set, the Street, and at Dinner With 'X' Director Spike Lee

 November 10, 1992

At 6:58 on Tuesday, September 29, the Odeon, a Tribeca institution since 1980, played host to relatively few patrons. There was a sudden cold spell to consider. There was Robert De Niro's Tribeca Grill to consider. The modicum of quiet blanketing the restaurant like so many snowy white tablecloths was not unusual. Still reeling from the blissful consumerism of the 80s, art world people, film people, writers—in the main, the Odeon's star clientele—dined late and sparingly on mashed potatoes, spinach and martinis.

A busboy flicked a napkin in the direction of one or two flies. At table number 25, Sylvester "Spike" Lee, filmmaker, sat alone, making notes in his agenda at the time of the first public (but very private) screening of his long-awaited epic, X, a film that, having been nearly 10 months in the making, and with a $33 million budget, has generated more advance publicity, criticism and debate than any "bio-pic of a slain leader" (as Variety termed it) since Conspiracy became a movie nexus.

The avalanche of press—"Spike Lee Hates Your Cracker Ass" (Esquire), "Do the Wrong Thing" (New York Post), "Spike's Pique" (Vanity Fair), "Spike Lee's X Factor" (LA Style), "We were gonna call [my book] X . . . but I realized . . . it might look like I was copying Spike" (Madonna)—didn't affect the bored insouciance of the Odeon's maitre d' leaning at her station, or Lee himself, who, from the distance of the street where I stood looking as I fumbled with the overcoat of the Observer, seemed small and separate from the near meta controversy that's sprung up around his film, a film Lee has described as "a spiritual journey . . . three hours and 21 minutes [the opening day of which] should be considered a holiday for black people and their families."

That Lee's statement did not insist on Malcolm X's birthday as the appropriate day for national celebration was an indication of just how much X might become intertwined with its creator's image—the black Woody Allen, a camera-wielding Sharpton, a gifted charlatan, an inspiration, a generous sort, a media hound (or barker). So much so, in fact, that Malcolm X—"Our shining black manhood" (Ozzie Davis), "A father, my brother" (James Baldwin)—might pall in comparison. Under the media's unremitting X watch, Malcolm has become a cardboard icon of sorts. Very little reference has been made in the press to what it is he actually did, believed, or said, besides what Lee has appropriated as a moniker for his company, 40 Acres and a Mule: By Any Means Necessary.

Nor does Malcolm seem as vocal as his filmographer.

"The media has tried to poison me. That woman from Esquire who did that piece," Lee says, referring to Barbara Gruzzuti Harrison's smarmy, I'm adorable and who's Spike Lee? Brand of old New Journalism. "She spent three days with me trying to prove how liberal she was. That's all she wrote. She kept telling me how liberal her upbringing had been, like I give a fuck. I called Esquire and told them I didn't like it. I never said I hated anyone's cracker ass. How many times do I have to say I didn't say it!

Lee's locution, his "I was robbed!" and "White America is responsible for the racism in this country" speech, contradicts the need fans and critics have for him. And not just as a cultural necessity. In the last several years, as lee has evolved, more and more, away from the loud ineptitude of his early Jerry Lewis-like screen persona—I'm skinny! I'm funny! I'm a geek!—and into the goatee-sporting, public image unlimited voice of black male rage, he has become something of a father figure.

We have watched Lee grow up with a certain misty nostalgia. His rise from street urchin to adult has been the story of boys we used to know who've left the neighborhood but haven't left us. Perhaps reversing the "truth" in many black homes: that Dad doesn't exist at all, that he's a long way from home. Not anymore. There he is as Spike Lee, filling the void on TV, in the news, with unequivocal authority. The subject? That the black male is a great, untapped American subject. And regardless of what Lee says about it—sometimes trenchant, sometimes stupid—he says it like Dad would, sound mixed with fury. Whatever one may think of Lee, he owns his authority.

"Next year, after X, the belt is mine," he said, throwing the gauntlet down at the feet of our Dionysian Mom, Madonna. It is Lee's complaining the public minds; it is as disjunctive as anyone's Dad crying over milk he hasn't spilled—yet.

Which raises the question: Can Lee get out of his own way well enough to be specific and distanced about Malcolm X's tale of stoicism and petty bigotry, the personally transformative effect and power of prayer, the self-reflective gaze of the truly isolated one who was reviled, believed, feared?

"Listen, he's a genius," one former Lee acolyte has said. "But at exactly what, I can't tell you. As a producer, yes. Definitely. But I'm not sure if Malcolm can survive a Spike Lee movie, especially if Spike's in it. He can't not compete. What's happening with all this X press is backfiring. It's beginning to look like Costello working Abbot over for top billing."

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