Picture This

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

"We got to know each other better on this project." He said. "And Denzel had played Malcolm before, in When the Chickens Come Home To Roost, a play—I never saw it.

"It was amazing for me to watch his absolute dedication, especially during Malcolm's religious conversion. I watched him humble himself, kneel and atone, just like Malcolm did. We knew our careers were not just at stake on this one, but our lives."

"Is this going to lead to another collaboration? Like Scorsese's with De Niro?"

Spike (with a smile): This is only our second film together. But wouldn't that be nice?"

For those with no vested interest in its process, movie making is a tedious undertaking. On a set, the eye is inclined to drift. Before a director yells "Print!" and the crew applauds at a scene's completion, time yawns. Very little happens as everything happens. Everyone wonders what the dailies will look like. No one knows how the scene will look. Everyone has an idea, though. The hyperreality involved in being what one is on a movie set—actor, sound engineer, reporter—elicits a certain self-conferred authority but not the authority: the director's.

On X's set, it was interesting to watch Spike Lee. This for a number of reasons, the primary one being the freedom inherent in his pivotal role as Authority. He never seemed to doubt this authority, nor did he seem especially aware of its effect in relation to the rest of the crew who were generally watching themselves watch him, as if for a cue.

On certain days, Lee's marcelled hair stuck out from beneath his X cap ("I had it conked to play Shorty"). On other days, his turned-in feet and loping stride carried him to his place: To his cinematographer, Ernest Dickerson's side. Sometimes Spike Lee smiles. More often, though, he didn't. More often, as Dickerson or someone else talked, Lee would listen, offering no more than an inscrutable nod. It became clear, as Lee did these things, that one of his principal responsibilities—aside from directing, running interference with producers, fielding questions from actors, being sure script rewrites were in place for the next day's shoot and interviewing caterers—was to appear as if none of this was a particular concern. On Lee's face, it was not clear whether or not any of this was cause for stress. Mostly, he maintained a relatively impassive veneer. Sometimes members of the crew imitated this stance, especially when approached by members of the press. When crew members approached Lee, this stance was dropped. Lee preferred his face to be in repose.

These were the things I saw on my first visit to the X set, late on December 4, 1991, a bone-chillingly cold evening.

It had taken some months of negotiation to arrange that visit. Lee was not directly involved in this. My request was fielded by the publicist hired expressly for part of the shoot ("Spike wants to know what kind of story you're planning to do. Is it major or can we back burner this?), and Lee's assistant Desiree, a pleasant young woman. "You want to see a script?" she asked, with a giggle, in response to my request. "I don't think so, but I'll ask him."

I did not receive a script. I did, however, receive the call sheet for December 4, which read, in part, like this:

DAY 58 OUT OF 75

This was rather a lot of shots for one day, amounting to a 13-to-24 hour work day, costume changes, and a considerable amount of tension.

"Yes, yes," said the unit publicist emphatically, crankily, into her walkie-talkie as she stood outside the Museum of Natural History's basement entrance. "Jesus," she said as I approached her, having first walked past the Winnebagos lining Central Park West, directly in front of the museum. In the cold dark the white trucks with white lights in them looked like white, frozen prehistoric things, guarded by young men in dirty down parkas, a nose ring or two and big Negro hair.

"They're shooting the scene in which Malcolm begins courting Betty Shabazz," said the unit publicist, leading me indoors, past the museum's great hall, past the aimless techies and gofers—primarily black—circling the floor or sometimes sitting dazed and huddled on it, X jackets used as pillows for those who had been felled by the recreation of history, or making of it.

The room in which the scene was to be filmed was replete with large, glassed-in environments featuring stuffed bears, a boar in the woods, struck dumb in perpetuity. The set was not "dressed." It was, however, stiflingly hot and weighed down by a large crane, a 35 mm camera, now big and dumb with nothing to show for itself. A video monitor off to one side flickered blue and then white, a further refracting of reality in the playing of scenes as they maybe didn't happen. Nothing appeared on the monitor for sometime. Nothing happened. Extras drifted around the space in early 60s summer clothing, in Stay-Press suits and black hats with small brims—brims too small for most of the men's heads. The women, some of whose hair was not processed but covered in ill-conceived or ill-fitting wigs, studied their nails or the boar. Their hats on top of their wigs were of no period I can recall.

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