Picture This

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

As played by Denzel, the words, the camera snaking in a great low arch before him, were choreographed to great effect, were mesmerizing: as the camera moved to the left, Washington's head would turn right, his eyes taking in the extras playing reporters, the reporters playing themselves, David Lee, the unit photographer, clicking away the publicist holding her cup of coffee, and Lee himself, grinning—or the hours this moment took to capture, as Washington took us all in, made his leave-taking a part of our responsibility. When Lee yelled, "Picture!" and everyone applauded, an extra turned to me and said, "Wonderful. But why does everything have to be so fucking perfect?"

The secrecy surrounding X was part of the project's aura, so much more interesting than the Controversy. In Lee's not too distant past, so much of this controversy would have worked to his and the film's advantage. Regardless of what the critics would have said in that halcyon past, the public knew who he was and was charmed and sufficiently provoked by the creation of Spike the Icon, the only (publicly) certifiable Negro star who was not a basketball player or a rapper, to see whatever movie he was touting.

Not so with Malcolm. X was different. Malcolm X was not an invented subject. Malcolm did not belong to Spike but to history, which always makes an audience approach such a project—a filmography—with some derision. The conjecture—was Lee making a film in the public's best interests or would Malcolm become another fall guy to Lee's ambition?—provoked, from one fan, this reaction to the proliferation of X hats and X tote bags: "Does Spike know that now a brother is selling X potato chips in Philly?"

Someone to whom I had applied for X information said, "No one will really talk to you about Spike. Why should they? Let's face it, Spike is a power. And like most people in power, he has to protect himself. And if he has to protect himself by being vindictive, fine. And if you don't like X fine too. You have to know he's tried to make it about Malcolm, but he couldn't. That particular bit of subject matter is his biggest competition in the black attention market. Martin wouldn't have meant the same time. Black, revolutionary, intelligent-all the things Spike is or wants to be. He's got the power. Now he has to figure out what to do with it. I mean, everyone wants a job in his business. He's made black film an industry. He's an entrepreneur, a brilliant producer, and a not even mediocre filmmaker. Even critically, you can't touch him without looking like a fool, or a racist."

Culture needs the "bad nigger" or two-Lee, Basquiat, Naomi Campbell, Malcolm X-but eventually punishes them. For being ornery, a loud mouth, a champion of "kissing my black ass two times," they receive headlines like "Do the Wrong Thing," which speaks scornfully of the Negro who speaks. If not solely an artist, Dad, or "bad nigger," what will Lee become to the public? X and the criticism it is bound to provoke will push past Lee's familiar image. And Malcolm's.

How has Malcolm changed in our collective imagination since he's gone before the cameras? In the 26 books slated for release around the time of X's opening (November 18), he is pictured as angry, unjoyous. He is, in his Denzel-as-Malcolm guise, pictured on the cover of the New York Times Magazine and in L.A. Style or whatever, no longer a challenge. The cult of personality-but dead. Is he a representative of all those mad, mad colored folk not burning the mother down-again?

Medium close-up: A young women sitting by a pool in L.A. Flat, ugly light off the hills, which are burning. Nearly everyone connected with X has gone to Mecca. I had gone to L.A.

"He makes money," said the young woman, her back arched. A yellow sheen is emitted from her Bodymap bathing suit. The young woman said, "I mean, he's in your face with these themes and whatnot, but he makes money. I happen to have liked Do The Right Thing. It had that edge, that New York edge people out here are just not into, being idiots. I mean, writers are paid a million dollars for a script that's eventually not going to be their vision. What the million dollars is for is to keep the writer quiet as your work goes to shit. What with producers and actors with more power than God meddling in everything, you have to take the money and run. Spike doesn't do that. He's anything but complacent about what he means to say. Personally, I hope he tears the roof off of this one."

The young woman dropped her pink heel into the pool.

"God, I hate this place," she said.

"The book that goes along with this project is called By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of Making Malcolm X While 10 Million Motherfuckers are Fucking With You," Spike Lee said, back at the Odeon. We laughed.

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