Picture This

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

Principal actors were being called to their places. Denzel Washington, with reddish brown hair, cut short, combed back , Malcolm glasses in place, entered followed by one or two or three men, each of whom held these things: a bottle of water, a down parka, and a script. Dressed in a black suit and white shirt with a black tie, he appeared trim and grim as he stood on his mark, making round O shapes with his mouth, intended, I assumed, to talk and talk.

Ernest Dickerson stood huddled near the video monitor, the blue images flickering in his face like the electronic light from an electronic fireplace, waiting for something to appear. Something did as an assistant yelled "Picture!" and Lee assumed his customary pose—arms draped across his chest, right hand cupping his chin—as the crane snaked down and nearly onto Denzel and Angela Bassett as Betty Shabazz, who took her place moments before. Bassett seemed amused watching herself play Betty Shabazz, nodding and smiling and nodding again as Denzel-as-Malcolm talked on and on. His body language conveyed, by turns, and in subtle ways—a flick of the tongue, a sidelong glance—an innocence, an awkwardness, that reminded one of Spike Lee at social gatherings.

Shot, from my medium distance: The video monitor showing Denzel-as-Malcolm motioning toward the white bear, his arms then crossed over his chest, his right hand cupping his chin. Bassett on video monitor: amused. Denzel: solemn. Cut. No take. Lighting not quite right. Lee confers with Dickerson. Some standing around. Extras bored. Tow make-up people come up to Washington and Basset and dab at their faces. Angela looks up as her cheeks are patted. Angela smiles. Denzel laughs at her smiling.

It was interesting to watch Lee—attired, besides X cap, in jeans and X T-shirt (which he sold on the set at somewhat of a reduction)—grapple with this bit of technical problem solving. There was his impassive stare again, the calm of a Yogi whose enlightened space was a movie set. One of two or three minutes pass before another A.D. yells "Quiet!" and another yells "Sound!" and someone else says "Picture!" Everyone began again, as if nothing had stopped and everything had been started.

The scene, which was about three minutes in length, took about three hours to record. After its completion, a source close to the production told me in the men's room, during the set-up of another scene, that the contretemps between Lee and Dickerson has reached mythic proportions. They have remained polite, though, says the source, committed, as they are, to the project, although it is known Dickerson is exhausted by his work on Juice, his first feature, which he's in post-production with. Lee, the source then says, wiping his hands, is nervous for and about Dickerson, the future of their collaboration, wondering if Juice or X will survive their anxiety about their separate projects.

The source, a young man, whispers all this to me in the most hushed, most anxious of tones, gripped, as he is, by the pervasive HUAC paranoia that keeps most movie sets shut solid, but also because he is alarmed by what he hasn't said: The fact seems to rely invariably on just two or three people—Monty Ross, Denzel Washington, and Ernest Dickerson. It was clear, then, for discussion. The thing I heard Lee demand most on the set was quiet. He creates a space by not speaking and in which everyone—A.D.s, actors, caterers—is committed because what Lee wants remains oddly unspoken.

On whatever location I happen to visit, it was not unusual to see one or four of his or someone else's personal assistants circle him on sneakered feet, faces imploring to be told what to do. Which Lee would eventually do, slowly, softly and with a directness that implied that while this idea might work he would have another, in no time, and another and another. Generally Lee's stance suggested that the success or failure of someone's ability to execute their task was the success or failure of the project as a whole.

Of course, there were those who reacted to Lee with some bitterness, and expelled this bitterness in a covert remark or two, fearful of identification. It became clear that what Lee dealt with, almost continually, were relationships that had to be negotiated again and again in order to see the image of what he wanted to see, in the picture.

Like in the interior of a hotel, a few, still bone-chilling nights later. The meeting hall of the hotel is flanked by a dais, behind which Malcolm sits with some of his staff to announce at a press conference his departure from the Nation of Islam. It was a heartbreaking scene, played with great restraint by Washington as he considers, publicly, and for the first time, why he is leaving home (the Nation) and Father (the Honorable Elijah Muhammad). The scene is written this way:

Pg. 162 Revised 11/16/91.

181. INT. JFK AIRPORT—DAY. A large PRESS CONFERENCE: mikes of every network, every newspaper and wire service presence. Malcolm sports a beard.

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