Making a Film of Malcolm X
NEW YORK — SPIKE LEE is one of today's most controversial filmmakers, drawing strong reactions from blacks and whites alike for his movies about racial tensions and African-American issues.But his latest project, "Malcolm X," is causing a stir that's unusual even for him - since the focus of the argument is a movie that hasn't been made yet, and won't be on screen until sometime next year. Worried that Mr. Lee will "trash" the Malcolm X story "to make middle-class Negroes sleep easier," black activist and author Amiri Baraka held a widely reported rally in Harlem recently, where he urged resistance to Lee's "exploitation film" and the negative effects Mr. Baraka claimed it could have on the African-American community. Lee's earlier films have also become targets for Baraka, who has publicly criticized such pictures as "She's Gotta Have It" and "Do the Right Thing" for trivializing issues a s important as women's rights and police violence against minorities. Missing from such remarks is recognition of the acclaim that Lee's best movies have garnered from racially mixed audiences and critics - acclaim that has done more than anything in memory to put African-American filmmaking on the cinematic map. It has also paved the way for a second wave of minority filmmakers such as John Singleton and Matty Rich, whose well-received "Boyz N the Hood" and "Straight Out of Brooklyn" followed on the heels of Lee's fifth feature, "Jungle Fever," earlier this season. Lee has responded with characteristic spice to the critics of his so-far-unmade film, publicly charging that Baraka has "appointed himself the grand pooh-bah of all blacks." Yet he has tempered his anger by promising to conduct a dialogue on the issue with the African-American community. This touch of moderation has come as a relief - and a surprise - to observers who feel the excellence of Lee's past movies has been ill-served by the rashness of his past remarks on racism in Hollywood and the shortcomin gs of film festivals that don't award him prizes. One of the great ironies of the present situation, however, is that Lee himself is hardly free of filmmaking hubris. His confidence in the eventual excellence of "Malcolm X," and his addiction to the most mercenary habits of the American film industry, are evident in the fact that he is already marketing Malcolm X commodities, designed to promote the box-office prospects of his movie at least as much as the philosophy of its title character. What's more, Lee has been known to appoint himself a "grand pooh-bah" in the past, readily criticizing an unmade film when the director didn't suit his preconceptions. Last year, Norman Jewison announced his intention to film Malcolm X's life from a screenplay by Charles Fuller, the writer of Mr. Jewison's movie "A Soldier's Story," which had a mostly African-American cast. Jewison is a veteran Hollywood director with a record of socially conscious filmmaking; the racially concerned "In the Heat of the Night" and the labor-union drama "F.I.S.T." are among his credits. Lee spoke out promptly and publicly against the very idea of the undertaking, though, claiming that a white filmmaker should not have control of such a black-related subject. "Blacks have to control these films," he said in a New York Times interview. A number of blacks, and a number of whites, have wanted to tell Malcolm X's story in the 16 years since the activist was murdered while delivering a speech in a Harlem auditorium. During much of this time, the rights to "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" have been owned by Marvin Worth, a Hollywood producer whose documentary "Malcolm X" was nominated for an Academy Award in 1973. Among those who have wrestled with the feature-film project are writers James Baldwin and David Mamet, and directors Stuart Rose nberg and Sidney Lumet - all of whom have solid reputations and accomplishments, but none of whom could get the enterprise off the ground. There are two main reasons why Mr. Worth and his various collaborators have stumbled - so far - with the Malcolm X project. Malcolm X was a vastly complicated figure, and his 40 years of life were jammed with activities of vastly different kinds. In a recent Mother Jones article, film expert Anne Thompson makes the excellent point that even his name and nickname went through constant changes, reflecting the many phases of his experience. He was Malcolm Little as a child; Detroit Red as a young criminal; Satan as a prison inmate; Malcolm X as a leader of Elijah Muhammad's extremist Nation of Islam movement; and El Hajj Malik E l Shabazz as a follower of traditional Islam, which he discovered shortly before breaking with Mr. Muhammad's group. How to condense such a life of physical adventure, mental growth, and spiritual exploration - mirrored by transformation from an unthinking thug into a white-hating radical, and then into a morally sincere humanist who rejected racism - within the bounds of a single screenplay? Another reason is that many in the African-American community, from leaders and activists to private citizens, feel they understand the real meaning of Malcolm X's life - and that other points of view should be discouraged. This is a common feeling within any group that combines diversity of membership with strong commitment to a person, philosophy, or cause. But recognizing the social dynamics of such a situation is a far cry from knowing how to correct the resulting tensions and dissensions, as Lee and his colleagues are finding out. Lee is a persuasive and tenacious person, and his "Malcolm X" is certain to be made and released within the next year. It may prove to be as ambitious as his current "Jungle Fever," as rigorously black-oriented as "School Daze," as minor as "Mo' Better Blues," or as lightweight as "She's Gotta Have It," which kicked off his career five years ago. It may even be as brilliant and complex as his best movie, "Do the Right Thing," which ends with a series of dialectical propositions that illustrate the impossibility of knowing what "the right thing" is in racial relations, except on a moment-by-moment basis. Significantly, one of those propositions is a quote from Malcolm X on the justification of self-defense; another is a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. on the virtue of nonviolence; and the film's last image is a photograph of the two leaders smil ing in apparent comradeship - a picture suggesting that their philosophies are easily compatible, but actually raising as many questions as it answers, since Malcolm X and Dr. King were photographed together on only that one occasion. Whatever shape Lee's version of "Malcolm X" ultimately takes, however, the time to debate it will be when the movie is completed. The foolishness of arguing about it now is underscored by the fact that Lee's screenplays often change while they're being filmed. "Malcolm X" could undergo all sorts of alterations when Denzel Washington and the other cast members start playing their parts as the cameras roll. Only when their efforts are ready to unspool in neighborhood theaters will the time be ripe for discussion of their merits and failings.