Spike Lee's Hot Potato. Director Treads Carefully With 'Malcolm X'

FILMMAKER Spike Lee keeps up a furious schedule, whether teaching a semester of African-American film at Harvard University, finishing post-production work on a movie of Malcolm X's life, or overseeing his marketing empire. He's constantly on the move. With the Malcolm X project, Mr. Lee has the delicate task of presenting the Islamic religion to filmgoers. The Sunni Muslim leadership, who in the 1960s was approached by Malcolm X to legitimize his brand of American Islam, are cooperating with Lee. They recognize that his film may affect how people view their faith. Cairo-based writer Carol Berger caught up with Lee and his film crew in late January, during his several-day shoot in that city. The filming of "Malcolm X," which includes sites in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa, as well as the United States, has called up memories of Malcolm X's travels, and of the expatriate black American community that sprung up in '60s Cairo.

THE headline in a Cairo newspaper last month read: "Malcolm X film crew converts to Islam." Thus, filmmaker Spike Lee and star Denzel Washington, both raised as Christians, found themselves - erroneously - introduced to the Egyptian public as new followers of the prophet Muhammad.

When Mr. Lee's $33 million-dollar "Malcolm X" production went on location in the Middle East, the delicate nature of Islam was not ignored. But some of the director's associates may have oversold their line on Islamic solidarity.

In fact, some members of the "Malcolm X" production had converted only weeks before filming in Islam's holiest site, Mecca, during the hajj last June. It was the first time that a commercial film crew had been granted shooting rights in Islam's most holy site. (Non-Muslims are forbidden to enter Mecca.) Lee himself was not with the crew at that time.

If some attached to the production had questionable motives, Lee was more direct. In an interview, he was candid about the religion question: "Most black [American] people are Southern Baptists. I only went to church when I went down South to visit my grandmothers. I have always been honest about [my views on] organized religion. There's a difference between religion and spirituality. It comes down to a personal choice."

Asked by several Cairo-based journalists about the conversion of members of his film crew who shot footage in Mecca, his first response ended in a great roar of laughter: "Robert De Niro gained 80 pounds for 'Raging Bull. He added, more seriously, "I have the utmost respect for the religion of Islam." Later he continued, "It's no joke. You can't mess up. It's not just Islam; look what they did to Martin Scorsese - they wanted to hang him for 'The Last Temptation of Christ.

Last year, Lee spent five days in Jiddah as a guest of the Saudi government. According to Lee, he received its "full support," not only because of the movie's expected impact on American Muslims but also on non-believers. "They [the Saudis] realize that millions and millions of people are going to see this film, and this will be their first introduction to Islam, and they hope it will be a positive treatment of the religion and it will be," Lee says.

The moviemaker, a diminutive powerhouse, kept up a grueling schedule of predawn starts and late-night wraps during his six-day Cairo stay. He was funny, irreverent - yet appeared totally concentrated on the work at hand. It is his biggest film yet, what he has said will be "a three-hour epic." Lee, for his part, is convinced that Washington will take an Oscar for his portrayal.

His task is not an easy one: to tell the life of a militant black man who went from prison inmate to preacher, Islam to Pan-Africanism. Denzel Washington plays Malcolm X. Visitors to the set who knew Malcolm in the 1960s remarked on the physical similarities, bearing and manner, between Mr. Washington and the slain activist.

Even amid the chaos of a local Cairo set, Washington was the picture of composure. Whether reshooting a crowd scene or repeating an Arabic phrase over and over while a demanding Egyptian tutor stood by - a smile was never far from his face.

The production company, looking for a location to depict a Jiddah street scene, had scouted a location in the heart of old Cairo. The narrow passageway and small courtyard where filming took place has remained virtually unchanged since the 1500s. The courtyard's beautiful but rundown Mameluke-period mosque served as backdrop. It lies in the heart of one of the city's poorer areas, a place where time has stood still. Barefoot, illiterate children labor in sweatshops, and transport through the muddy and ru tted passageways is by foot or pack animal and cart. In cinematography terms, it is "an existing set."

While Washington, in 1960s thin tie and the trademark glasses worn by Malcolm X, readied for the shoot, blowzy Egyptian housewives leaned out of second floor windows to watch the spectacle below. On the ground itself, scores of small children were indifferent to repeated efforts to remove them.

The air was thick with dust. Extras and locals - indistinguishable by their dress or appearance - mingled around one of America's rising stars. An occasional motorcycle roared past - even a rogue donkey and the local madman made impromptu appearances.

A simple coffin draped in pleated red silk bobbed past the cameras, borne on the shoulders of six poorly dressed men. Behind them a ragged group of mourners followed on foot. This was definitely not in the script.

And then it was gone from view. Places were taken up once more. "Action!" shouted a director, and taxis creaked into camera range. The motley crew of extras were herded into position, and Malcolm X haggled over the price of oranges with a street vendor. Out of range, a white actor in sunglasses awaited his cue to cross the square in pursuit of Malcolm: the shadowing CIA agent.

Under a bright blue African sky, the tall, handsome man with the closely cropped, reddish-brown Afro lifted his left hand. For a moment you saw it, the ring: Malcolm X's signature ring bearing the crescent moon and star of Islam. And for a moment it was 1964 again.

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