Picture This

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

Lee, whose eyes miss nothing, said, in his best guerrilla filmmaking voice: "We had so much shit to get through to bring this off. We have to bring it off. There was the pressure of not messing Malcolm up. 'Don't mess Malcolm up' is what me and Denzel heard all the time. We had to respect Malcolm. And Dr. Betty Shabazz and Shorty, Malcolm's real close friend from the Boston days, whom I play.

"Then you had people who thought I was trying to bumrush the show all the time. Like, when Norman Jewison was chosen as this film's original director." Lee smiled at the memory. "I said, 'Hey Norman, you might have to give this one up.' He very graciously bowed out when I had a talk with him to explain how maybe he wasn't the best person qualified to do Malcolm."

Before I could raise the question with Lee of whether or not he was qualified for the job, he silenced it with more speech, continuing his X travails narrative. This is a recognizable device used by artists to protect themselves against the public's judgment of their work. The enormity of the judgment facing Lee accounts, in part, for the intensity of his criticism of the press—another power. As Lee talked, his eyes blinked slowly, more than before.

"People said, 'Look at Spike trying to take credit for James Baldwin's script,'" he continued. "The script was written 25 years ago when Marvin Worth, our producer, hired Baldwin to translate Malcolm's book to the screen. I never didn't want Baldwin to have credit, but his sister, Gloria, his executor, didn't want to have anything to do with this project. Don't ask me why.

"There have been a million scripts done. I mean, David Mamet did a script. He put Alex Haley, Malcolm's coauthor on the Autobiography, in as a character in the film. We finally have a credit that reads: Arnold Perl and Spike Lee."

The making or not making of X has been chronicled for years, most notably by James Baldwin in his essay The Devil Finds Work. "At the top of 19 68," he writes, "I flew to Hollywood to write the screenplay for The Autobiography of Malcolm X . . . I think that I would rather be horsewhipped, or incarcerated in the forthright bedlam of Bellevue, than repeat the adventure."

Baldwin's screenplay published as One Day, When I was Lost, is a masterpiece. Adapted for the screen in a series of flashbacks and other time jumbles, it is presented as cinema verite but very precisely structured. Although Baldwin originally intended to adapt the book for the stage as a collaboration between himself, Haley, and Elia Kazan, the play, like the film, was never produced. What did eventually make it to the boards, nearly 20 years later, was Anthony and Thulani Davis's X, an opera that enjoyed a brief success d'estime . . . While noted for the subtlety of its language and harmonic structure, the opera was limited to just a few performances. At the time of its New York premier—in 1968—there was no Big Moment to help sell it: no public bloodletting, no Rodney King, no X hats, no Spike Lee.

As Lee's voice went on describing, with the chilly but fascinated detachment of the survivor of a bad dream, the film's financial problems—its takeover, at one point, by the Completion Bond Company when X went over budget; the $3 million fee he reduced to $1 million to help keep the film afloat; his eventual call to a number of black entrepreneurs (Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Prince, Janet Jackson, Michael Jordan) for "a gift—not a loan, not an investment" to retain his right to final cut; his commitment to :never financing a film like this again. If anyone asks me to, they can kiss my black ass two times"—I wondered what the aesthetic demands of the film might have been. I wondered about Lee's handling of his actors I commented on having seen Cynda Williams in Carl Franklin's One False Move and how, well, different she seemed in Mo' Better Blues.

"That girl just walked in off the street!" he said, folding in on himself in the booth. It occurred to me that Lee's vulnerability, the turning away of a shoulder, a sidelong glance, a bark, may account for his more preposterous public statements. Rather than appear in the least vulnerable and therefore open to criticism, he had decided to appear as invulnerable as possible, the angry laughing figure beyond reproach, beyond comment . . .

I had heard a great deal about Malcolm . . . and I was a little afraid of him . . .I saw Malcolm before I met him, I had just returned from someplace . . . I was giving a lecture somewhere in New York, and Malcolm was sitting in the first or second row of the hall, bending forward at such an angle that his long arms nearly caressed the ankles of his long legs, staring up at me. I am very nearly panicked . . . .I stumbled through my lecture with Malcolm never taking his eyes off my face. -- James Baldwin

Looking into Lee's face for some further point of connection between Baldwin's image of Malcolm and the reel-upon-reel image of Malcolm created by Denzel Washington, I asked Lee about directing him.

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