NEW YORK -- A week or two before the world press premiere of his film "Malcolm X," Spike Lee said he would prefer to be interviewed by African-American journalists, when possible. He never made a demand that only blacks talk to him, and he never said he wouldn't talk to whites. But most news reports gave that impression, and at least one giant Midwestern daily pulled its white movie writer off the assignment in a huff.
Two things emerged during the press weekend itself: Most of the press people who talked to Spike were indeed white, and many papers and TV stations didn't have an African-American staffer they could send.
Lee was making a point, something he does with flair. Blacks buy 25 percent of the movie tickets in America, but represent a nearly invisible minority in the entertainment press. If his request offended white editors, how do they deal with one of the sneakiest open secrets in movie journalism, the way big Hollywood stars and their publicists ask for - and get - upfront approval of writers?
Some publicists ask for pre-approval of questions, making clear that certain topics are out of bounds. They even negotiate what kind of play their clients will receive; if they're not promised a color photo on the front page of the feature section, their star won't talk. And then there's this smarmy old ploy: "See the movie, and if you like it, the star would really like to talk to you." In other words, if you don't like it, forget the interview.
I try not to go along with scams like that, which are pulled by the representatives for even the most prestigious and honored movie personalities. My record is not perfect, but from now on it will be - because I'm offended by the double standard being applied to Lee.
No one has ever asked me if I liked a new Spike Lee picture before arranging an interview with Lee, and I doubt if anyone ever will. No question has ever been out of bounds. Nobody has ever asked how the story will be played. When Spike Lee exercised his clout, he was doing it on behalf of others, not himself.