On the set, the street, and at dinner with X director Spike Lee
November 10, 1992
By Hilton Als
At 6:58 on Tuesday, September 29, the Odeon, a Tribeca institution since 1980, played host to relatively few patrons. There was the sudden cold spell to consider. There was Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Grill to consider, too. The modicum of quiet blanketing the restaurant like so many snowy white tablecloths was not unusual. Still reeling from the blissful consumerism of the ’80s, art world people, film people, writers — in the main, the Odeon’s star clientele — dined late and sparingly on mashed potatoes, spinach, and martinis.
A busboy flicked a napkin in the direction of one or two flies. At table number 25, Sylvester “Spike” Lee, filmmaker, sat alone, making notes in his agenda at the time of the first public (but very private) screening of his long-awaited epic, X, a film that, having been nearly 10 months in the making, and with a $33 million budget, has generated more advance publicity, criticism, and debate than any “bio-pic of a slain leader” (as Variety termed it) since Conspiracy became a movie nexus.
The avalanche of press — “Spike Lee Hates Your Cracker Ass” (Esquire), “Do the Wrong Thing” (New York Post), “Spike’s Pique” (Vanity Fair), “Spike Lee’s X Factor” (L.A. Style), “We were gonna call [my book] X…but I realized…it might look like I was copying Spike” (Madonna) — didn’t affect the bored insouciance of the Odeon’s maître d’ leaning at her station, or Lee himself, who, from the distance of the street where I stood looking as I fumbled with the overcoat of the Observer, seemed small and separate from the near meta controversy that’s sprung up around his film, a film Lee has described as “a spiritual journey…three hours and 21 minutes [the opening of which] should be considered a holiday for black people and their families.”
That Lee’s statement did not insist on Malcolm X’s birthday as the appropriate day for national celebration was an indication of just how much X might become intertwined with its creator’s image — the black Woody Allen, a camera-wielding Sharpton, a gifted charlatan, an inspiration, a generous sort, a media hound (or barker). So much so, in fact, that Malcolm X — “Our shining black manhood” (Ozzie Davis), “A father, my brother” (James Baldwin) — might pall in comparison. Under the media’s remitting X watch, Malcolm has become a cardboard icon of sorts. Very little reference has been made in the press to what it is he actually did, believed, or said, besides what Lee has appropriated as a moniker for his company, 40 Acres and a Mule: By Any Means Necessary.
Nor does Malcolm seem as vocal as his filmographer.
“The media has tried to poison me. That woman from Esquire who did that piece,” Lee says, referring to Barbara Gruzzuti Harrison’s smarmy, I’m adorable and who’s Spike Lee? brand of old New Journalism. “She spent three days with me trying to prove how liberal she was. That’s all she wrote. She kept telling me how liberal her upbringing had been, like I give a fuck. I called Esquire and told them I didn’t like it. I never said I hated anyone’s cracker ass. How many times do I have to say I didn’t say it!”
Lee’s locution, his “I was robbed!” and “White America is responsible for the racism in this country” speech, contradicts the need fans and critics have for him. And not just as a cultural necessity. In the last several years, as Lee has evolved, more and more, away from the loud ineptitude of his early Jerry Lewis–like screen persona — I’m skinny! I’m funny! I’m a geek! — and into the goatee-sporting, public image unlimited voice of black male rage, he has become something of a father figure.
We have watched Lee grow up with a certain misty nostalgia. His rise from street urchin to adult has been the story of boys we used to know who’ve left the neighborhood but haven’t left us. Perhaps reversing the “truth” in many black homes: that Dad doesn’t exist at all, that’s he’s a long way from home. Not anymore. There he is as Spike Lee, filling the void on TV, in the news, with unequivocal authority. The subject? That the black male is a great, untapped American subject. And regardless of what Lee says about it — sometimes trenchant, sometimes stupid — he says it like Dad would, sound mixed with fury. Whatever one may think of Lee, he owns his authority.
“Next year, after X, the belt is mine,” he’s said, throwing the gauntlet down at the feet or our Dionysian Mom, Madonna. It is Lee’s complaining the public minds; it is as disjunctive as anyone’s Dad crying over the milk he hasn’t spilled — yet.
Which raises the question: Can Lee get out of his own way well enough to be specific and distanced about Malcolm X’s tale of stoicism and petty bigotry, the personally transformative effect and power of prayer, the self-reflective gaze of the truly isolated, one who was reviled, believed, feared?
“Listen, he’s a genius,” one former Lee acolyte has said. “But at exactly what, I can’t tell you. As a producer, yes. Definitely. But I’m not sure if Malcolm can survive a Spike Lee movie, especially if Spike’s in it. He can’t not compete. What’s happening with all this X press is backfiring. It’s beginning to look like Costello working Abbott over for top billing.”
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 schoolchildren 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 dark and private distanced place out of 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 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 been coming by. De Niro, as a matter of fact.”
“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-creating some life with father — has had 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 long 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 one or 10 or 50 photographs; they had been replaced by elegant black 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.
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 the 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 on 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 1968,” 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 verité 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 premiere — 1986 — 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 then 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 very nearly panicked.… I stumbled through my lecture, with Malcolm never taking his eyes from 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.
“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 this place: To his cinematographer, Ernest Dickerson’s side. Sometimes Spike Lee smiled. 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 principle 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 of particular concern. On Lee’s face, it was not clear whether 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 Desirée, 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:
CALL SHEET: MALCOLM X.
DAY: 58 OUT OF 75
CREW CALL 6P SET # INT
MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY (1957)
MALCOLM PROVES PORK IS FOUL.
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 brown 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 hats discarded here and there, X jackets used as pillows for those who had been felled by the re-creation of history, or making of it.
“Here we are,” she said. “Here we are, getting back to the two of them the way they were, authentic. This is part of where it happened.”
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 35mm 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 some time. 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 wigs were of no period I can recall.
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 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. Two make-up people come up to Washington and Bassett 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 or 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 to be 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 had reached epic proportions. They have remained polite, though, says the source, committed, as they are, to the project, although it is known that 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’s alarmed by what he hasn’t said: The fact that Lee does not demand more of him and seems to rely invariably on just two or three people — Monty Ross, Denzel Washington, and Ernest Dickerson. It was clear, then, that Lee’s offhanded stance left little room 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 happened 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.
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 the 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 thing. 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 such as “Do the Wrong Thing,” which speak scornfully of the Negro who speaks. If not solely an artist, Dad, or “bad nigger,” what will Lee become to his 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 woman 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 just are 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 dipped 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.
Our relative isolation created somewhat of the feeling that we were sealed off, alone, a feeling Lee, noticing everything and saying nothing, tried to decompress by asking about a film I had been rather closely associated with. Making a stern, protective, big brother gesture toward me — placing his right hand flat on the table with a thump — he gave me advice about the film community, which he has been cultivating for 13 years. I reacted to this advice as comfort. And since this comfort had taken so long to establish, I asked him about his. Where did he find it?
His mother, as I knew, had died relatively young, of cancer.
“My mother was responsible for my love of cinema,” he said. “She took me to see West Side Story, An American in Paris, Carmen Jones when I was a kid.”
“All of those films are about the hope of integration still existing in foreign, hostile environments,” I said.
“Yeah, I guess so. I didn’t know cinema was about making it back then. I didn’t know it was something anyone could do.”
Spike seemed enlivened by the memory, the internal picture of this: Spike in the dark, looking at the screen, unaware and then aware of its possibilities.
“For a long time, I didn’t know anyone did it, making pictures,” he said. He put on his X hat, his X jacket.
“Which way are you going?” I asked.
“Brooklyn!” With a feigned growl that put us both at ease, we were suddenly at the end, in close-up, nervous and expectant, as directed by Spike Lee.
He said: “Maybe I’ll go home and watch one of those movies.”
Can This Be the End for Cyclops and Professor X?
November 10, 1992
By Greg Tate
“I’m not a race man. I’m an X-man,” says Bullrose to Dravidiana, the she-ra with the Hi-8 video camera.
“As in Malcolm, of course?” she crack, whopping them blond dreads out of her face with ye olde roundhouse swing of the dome.
“No, as in Ice Man, Angel, Cyclops, and The Beast. My slave name used to be Scott Summers, dig?” A list that does not leave Dravidiana perplexed, just provoked into Bullrose’s bushwah.
“Whoa, Troop! What happened to X-Girl? You just erasin’ her from the pages of Marvel history?”
The gender interrogation feel like déjà vu to Bullrose. It take him back. Back before Dravidiana turned that lesbonic corner, back when she was his woman and he were her man, back when she routinely took him to task for the masculinist infractions.
“I remember back in the day when being up on Marvel Comics’ lore was strictly a brother-thang. Can’t nothing be strictly a brother-thang anymore? I know how them all-white country clubs feel. Can’t get away from these niggas nowhere.”
“And woman is the nigga of the world,” proclaimed the she-ra. “But let’s stick to the point. The original question was…”
“…how many peckers did Peter Piper prick?”
“The original question was, why are so many young brothers sweatin’ Malcolm X’s dick so hard these days? Is it ’cause Spike Lee, Chuck D, BDP? Why you got the sleaze-ass likes of Big Daddy Kane saying he aspires to be a combination of Malcolm X and Marvin Gaye, a great Black leader and a sexy entertainer? And a virtual humanist like Vernon Reid coming out the box like he wants to be X and Hendrix rolled into one? How cum? Huh? Huh?”
“Well, all the brothers you mentioned led the way far as the resurrection goes, but X wouldn’t be making this kind of comeback if he wasn’t a bona fide superstar. I mean, the brother had style. He never took a bad photograph in his life. His records still sound dope. And no matter what kinda nigga y0u are, if you read his book you can see yourself in him. Like Chaka Khan said she was everywoman, X was every Black man. I mean, the brother had a multiple-identity crisis going on. Count ’em off: preacher, poet, pimp, prostitute, prophet, player, political activist, warrior-king, husband, father, martyr.
“X occupies so many housin’ units in the Black male psyche, a brother can’t erase X without erasing himself. I don’t think he shot hoop, and he wasn’t a jazz musician, but he was a great jazz dancer, which is close enough to confer jazzman/jock cache on his godhead too.”
“But what do these brothers really know about brother Malcolm? All they know is what other niggas say about what a nigga he was. Jockin’ on the T-shirts, buttons, and shit. What do they know about his politics, which were like totally fucked up?”
“What does a young brother got to know? X was a smooth operator from the streets with a dope rap who stood up for Black folks and got shot down for doing it. That’s the stuff Black heroes are made of. Staying Black and dying for it. It’s a myth0-pop-poeic world out there. Brother been brought up on it same as everybody else. Malcolm was like JFK or Elvis. He was made for the TV age. Brother man was videogenic and gave great soundbites. The hip-hop nation got to dig him because he could rap, he had street knowledge, mother wit, and supreme verbal flow. You know how we value verbal prowess in the Black community. The brother or sister who can make stone rhetoric swing like a pickax to the brain. All of that is why the young brothers are on Malcolm’s jock so hard.”
“Do you think they’d be following him if he was alive today?”
“If he was alive today they wouldn’t need to be following him. I mean, do you realize how different America would be today if King and X had been around to provide moral leadership and militant thrust to the Panthers and the Yippies and all them muhfuckuhs instead of them being left out there to freelance and fuck it up for themselves? But, you know, it’s cool, because Malcolm left the brothers their first revolutionary pop ikon. Nat Turner don’t count. Who even knows what he looked like? Coulda been a nerd. And when you dealing with American superstars, baby, all you need to know is he lived fast and died young, a martyr who went out in a blaze of glory. Dying under suspicious and mysterious circumstances helps too. That way you can really hype the conspiratorial element. Live heroes are a problem. They be getting all soft and wet and problematic on you. If you’re lucky enough to die young you can be remembered for being a hard muhfuckuh forever. We celebrate the death of Malcolm X for what it is — the birth of a new Black god. X is dead, long live X. He’s like the Elvis of Black pop politics — a real piece of Afro-Americana. That’s why Spike’s logo is branded with an American flag. Malcolm couldn’t have happened anywhere else.”
“Do you think Malcolm’s spirituality makes a difference to the youth at all?”
“Sure it does because that’s all part of the package, the construct we know as X the martyr. But spirituality is like anything else in America, you got to package it right. Malcolm had the right package. If being Muslim is how you get to be a righteous Black man like Malcolm, then you become Muslim. When you’re young, dumb, and full of cum and, lord knows, you gonna get you some, you like to think you got juice to pass judgment on the world, that youth makes right. Self-righteousness comes with the territory: You think however you living is justifiable because you a sexy young thing, maybe good with your hands or in some sport. But maybe not because it really ain’t as important as being proficient in Black Male Posturing. BMP is a bitch. Carry you farther than you will ever imagine in this world because the whole world gives it so much power. Except for the butch breed like yourself who on the whole are probably less impressed than anybody. And cocky because of it. Yeah, I be checking how arrogantly y’all will ignore a fine brother just because you know it fucks up his whole program. Y’all eat that shit up.”
“You mean like you, boy-Romeo.”
“Being a loveman is a tough job but somebody has to do it, right? Anything else you want to ask me?”
“When did you first hear about Malcolm?”
“In my house growing up. I’m an old muhfuhkuh so we talking ’65, ’66 when I was around eight or nine. He was a regular on the turntable. ’longside Otis, Coltrane, and Nina Simone. We lived in a big three-story house. The stereo was a big old piece of furniture. So when my people played Malcolm on a Sunday it would fill up the house, every nook and cranny, you could almost smell Malcolm’s voice smoking up the joint. Seems like on Sunday my people kept Malcolm going like we keep candles and incense going today. Except for Nina Simone and Otis Redding and John Coltrane, the only records I can remember my people playing was X. Now all my mother listens to besides jazz-lite radio and weight-loss tapes is Public Enemy. There’s some kinda continuity there, I guess. I don’t know what happened to all those X records she had. Probably got stolen, or borrowed and never returned. They’re collector’s items really. Probably fetch a fine price on the open market.”
“What do you remember from the X oeuvre?”
“Certain phrases will stick with me forever. ‘I’m the man you think you are.’ ‘I’d do the same as you, only more of it.’ ‘You can’t get a chicken from a duck egg.’ I always liked that image. It always made me see a baby chick flopping around in an eggshell three sizes too big. ‘You can’t have a revolution without bloodshed.’ ‘Doesn’t matter if you’re a Baptist or a Methodist, you’ll still catch hell.’ That conjured an image in my mind too: churches burning down. That one where he talks about how if you were a citizen you wouldn’t need no Civil Rights bill. What’s funny is that even as a child — and I’m talking seven, eight years old — X made perfect sense to me. Maybe because he was talking about right and wrong in such binary terms, like in fairy tales. You know he painted the world as Black equals good and white equals evil. Black could be stupid, punk ass, and illogical but not evil. And white couldn’t be nothing but evil. Do I still believe that? Not expressly. On the other hand I’m not impressed by much of anything white people do except for some painters and photographers, a couple stand-up comics and the theoretical physicist types.”
“Not to digress but you can be hard on your Black visual artists. Why is that?”
“The evidence speaks for itself. It’s not even about where’s the Coltrane, the Baraka, the Lady Day, the Fannie Lou Hamer of painting, sculpture, and photography. It’s about where is the Jr. Walker, the Iceberg Slim, the Gloria Lynne, the Shirley Chisholm. There’s very little Black visual work that personifies blackness. You got people that do good work but rarely does it not lack for the wit, pathos, and absurdity of Black existential reality. We got people that have rolled up close up on it. But it can get even blacker than that. I think so, anyway.”
“How can you quantify the blackness of visual practice and phenomena?”
“Only by the way it does things white boys can’t even contemplate. Like being a Malcolm X, Bob Marley, Miles Davis. If you a white boy you know there’s no way in hell you could be one of them because you could never step inside of history in their skin. Race doesn’t prescribe experience or predict emotional depth, but there are historical experiences that only being Black in space, time, and mind will make possible. You get my drift?”
“Sounds kinda essentialist to me. What’s really the difference between what you’re saying and calling white folks grafted devils?”
“Are we gonna have that old debate again? Look, there is a special kind of alienation you possess as Black person in this society that is all mashed up with your feeling of love and loathing and loyalty to Black folks as a whole. Unless you were raised among Black people you never develop certain sensitivities or neuroses about race and culture and identity that I believe are a fundamental inspiration for Black creative genius. Du Bois talked about Black folks and double consciousness. I think if you’re a Black intellectual you got quadruple, sextuple, octagonal consciousness beaming around your brain. You’re always trying to square things that have no lines and hard edges. Like where Africa ends and Europe begins. How to develop yourself without alienating those who are interested in development on whose behalf you are developing yourself. You know if Malcolm hadn’t had the Nation of Islam’s save-a-sinner program behind him to smooth all that kinda shit out he woulda been another alienated Black intellectual in deep crisis. Trying to figure out how to relate to the masses and redeem ’em without romanticizing and patronizing or, worst of all, pandering to them. It’s easy to challenge Black folks on self-destructive behavior. Harder to challenge us on reactionary practices like misogyny, homophobia, and thinking that intellectual development is a white thang. But what is Malcolm to you, Dravi? What are you looking for from these interviews and whatnot?”
“Well, like, I was never raised to have heroes. I was raised to listen to what people said and look for how it contradicted what they did. I learned that the person who did a constructive thing for the community today could be about tearing it down tomorrow. I was taught how fragile and selfish most human beings are — except for Black mothers — and that holding power over people makes them even more fragile, vain and lonely and dangerous. Dangerous to others because their charisma makes folks want to let them do their thinking for them. Dangerous to themselves because they have to give up their humanity on the way to the hall of glory.
“I think history shows us that the revolutionaries and prophets that the state killed got a better deal than the ones who became living symbols. Because there’s nothing at the end of that road but bitterness, regret, and tyranny. How can you respect the common humanity of people who hold your ideas, your utterances as more valid than their own lives? That’s why I got no use for heroes. I can respect heroic acts I can’t respect anybody who’d want idolatry for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
“You don’t think that’s what Malcolm wanted, do you?”
“I don’t know that any real revolutionary starts out wanting that. It’s what people want for you. And the only way you can defeat that kind of imposed demogogic status is by rejecting the people and the power they invest in you. Malcolm was one of the lucky ones. History swallowed him before he swallowed it.”
“Ahh, the humanist response. Deep. Far as it goes. But if you want to know the real deal, I think X was swallowed by the world of the assassins.”
“The world of the assassins. The world he renounced after his trip to Mecca and after he renounced the Nation of Islam. Anywhere you have a politicized secret society you’re going to draw the secret order of the assassins. They’re a guild that’s been around since about the 11th century. For more on this than I got time for here I suggest you check out Ishmael Reed, Thomas Pynchon, and Robert Anton Wilson. I think X became a target when he threatened to come out of the cultish darkness of Islamic separatism and into the light of pantheistic humanism. The assassins thrive wherever humans dispute over difference, borders, territories, or identity — anywhere difference becomes politicized, the assassins have got a stake and probably a hand in it. They killed JFK and RFK when they threatened to bridge differences between nations. And they did it to Martin when he threatened the Vietnam project as well as their program of American economic apartheid. They could have killed Castro but they realized his presence provided the ‘logic’ that kept state terror and the assassins’ order alive and well in Latin America.
“The assassins uphold no ideology, no. The assassins live only for chaos, disunion, and the perfectability of the art of the political murder. To perpetuate themselves they have to practice their craft. Anyone with political power who renounces them in pursuit of dissolving human difference is dangerous. The assassins want to keep us in the Tower of Babel state. That’s why they had to take out Coltrane, Redding, Hendrix, Marley, and X, and neutralize Clinton and Sly. That’s why you see cats like Chuck D and KRS-One only flirt with humanism but not really embrace it. They know that the assassins are on the nether side of bringing folk together, with a vengeance. When you can convince folks they don’t need ignorance, hatred, and fear or the ism-schisms to survive, you’ve effectively cut the heads off the assassins and tossed their mangy torsos into the streets to be mulled over and masticated by the dogs in the clear light of day. Malcolm was on the way to taking them out of the darkness and into the light like every other progressive prophet who ever came down the pike, and that’s why ‘history’ swallowed him. Dig?”
“Dig? Niggapleeze. If you don’t get out my face with that warmed-over Illuminati Tragedy-Mumbo-Jumbo Rainbow Coalition bushwah — I still say we don’t need another hero.”
“And I say you still don’t get it. It’s not about us. It’s about an ancient conflict over how the soul of the world should turn.”
“No, it’s about the souls of the men and how easily they turn to violence when they can’t control the earth, nature, or women. If any of these prophets you speak of were truly progressive, they’d realize the only way your assassins could be assassinated will be when the planet is ruled by the cult of woman, which is the cult of the earth. But men are too into keeping up the body count because all they can bring into existence on the planet without bowing down to the feminine principle is murder.”
“I ain’t even steppin’ up into that nonsense. Baby, I’m 5000.”
“5000? Not even that high. More like 33 and a third.”