Picture This

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

Over X lines have been drawn, turning it less into a film than a condition of the community out of which it is born, a community that, notes theologist James Cone, has "three characteristics: the tension between life and death, identity crisis, and white social and political power." This community has become part of the image world too. And it is a bumpy montage that includes Rodney King, the debacle in Crown Heights, white shoe polish being thrown on black school children in the Bronx, Anita Hill—the greatest story never told. It is a parade of images that calls out for one voice, one vision—that of the Great Black Father—who upon removing his glasses and never donning cape fear, has power. And can put out a word. Loud but heard. Which speaks—hopefully—to and about history. George Jackson and Medgar Evers, Malcolm and Angela Davis, and children wearing X hats, staring at X posters: By Any Means Necessary. It's a dictum Lee has illustrated by having completed X. Sho' Nuff. Can Ya Dig It?

And which Lee might become the victim of. Should X not fly as anything more than an interesting cultural moment, Lee could become just another Baldwin, especially after The Fire Next Time—Baldwin's essay on the Nation of Islam and religious conversion—garnered all those magazine covers and lectures and interviews that eventually cowed him as an artist. The clamor that met the piece turned Baldwin into a Spokesman, a public Self who, like Richard Wright and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. before him, became committed to speaking out but could never return in, into that which one's art grows, tangled and intense, but one's own.

Where will X leave Lee who, in the not loving glare of publicity already looks so different from the movie-loving boy he must have been, sitting alone now at table 25, making notes in his agenda on the person he has to be next week, and the week after?

Outside the Odeon, the traffic lights continued to change. The wind shifted. Pulling my coat even tighter, I entered.

Lee is excellent at projecting a tone of voice that conveys mock umbrage and other aspects of Dad/boss man disapproval. "You're Late. (Pause.) Again," he said, as I slid into his booth. To make up for my time-lagged butt—or sensibility—he motioned for a waiter.

In bad French-inflected English with a little early B-boy thrown in, Lee said, "Mon-Signor, zee food please. Can we get some attention over here? I mean, like service," and placed both our orders

I asked if meeting at the Odeon had been convenient because he was putting the finishing touches on X at the Tribeca Film Center.

"Hell no," he said with the abruptness he often uses to pull the verbal rug out from under any interlocutor. Turning away from establishing even the most superficial intimacy is an aspect of Lee's speech. Often, he prefers to project the arrogance of the shy, the physically small man, who bullies before being bullied. "I'm mixing the final sound at Magno, uptown. We haven't finished the final images yet, but people have coming by. De Niro, as a matter of fact."


"And what?"

"The reaction. To the film."

Lee paused. He shifted in his seat. No reaction seemed forthcoming except another wave of his shyness, the artist's reluctance to pass judgment—even if inferred—on himself. This time, and for more than a moment, his defensive tone could not shield his quietness as he said, "He liked it."

Then, "Scorsese came too." Scorsese, in his collaborations with De Niro—especially Mean Streets, that ode to the dream and ultimate failure of re-creatingsome life with father—has been a seminal influence on Lee.

"I sat in back of him while he watched the movie. I could feel the way he watched it—this man who loves cinema the way I love sports. And I could feel what he thought. You know the way he takes a shot and puts it back together for you so that the audience knows what's going on? That's the way he took my film apart."

Dinner was served. Lee picked up his fork, and held it, on an angle, in his left hand. He attacked his food with great relish. He did not use a knife. Bits of perspiration collected on his sparse, dark mustache. He ate, by turns, his mashed potatoes from one plate and salmon from another, using slow strokes. His thin shoulders and slight frame floated somewhere inside his oversized denim shirt, over which he wore a red tie with diamond patterns. Gone were the Malcolm X-style glasses seen in 10 or 50 photographs; they had been replaced by elegant tortoise-shell frames, through which Lee's gaze, his large and unblinking eyes, like Baldwin's self-described "frog eyes," were the most physically forceful aspect of his person. This gaze did not disturb the vulnerability one feels is wrapped around him clearly, like plastic. The signature diamond stud was in his left earlobe. His earlobe seemed to signify so much, so nearly naked and delicate, I had to think twice before deciding not to stroke it.

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