NEW YORK -- It was clear, after all the years of publicity and months of controversy, that "Malcolm X" had better be a good movie, or Spike Lee would go down with it. He had talked the talk, and now it was time to walk the walk.
After taking the project away from a powerful white director, after saying only an African-American could tell Malcolm's story, after hearing from other blacks who thought he was too bourgeois to tell it, after conducting a running battle in the press with Warner Bros. (which didn't want the movie to be as long or as expensive as Spike thought it should be), Lee and "Malcolm X" arrived at the moment of truth last weekend. The movie was at last finished, it was shown, and it had to speak for itself.
It did so as eloquently as any filmed biography I have ever seen. Spike put up, which is just as well, because it's not in his nature to shut up.
"Malcolm X" (opening Wednesday) belongs on the list of the great epic films about men's lives, with "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Gandhi." It takes the life of a man who was dismissed as a separatist cult leader in his lifetime - even by many other blacks - and shows how his uncompromising analysis of race in America undermined the conventional pieties of his time. Like all great movie biographies, it does three things at once: It entertains, it educates, and it inspires.
The man behind the movie is better than any American director except Oliver Stone at stirring up pre-release controversy over his movies. The stories hit the headlines one after another: Spike thought only a black could direct the movie. Spike said kids should skip school to see "Malcolm X." Spike only wanted to be interviewed by African-Americans (see related story). These statements were much amplified in the retelling, and Spike's actual words were more reasonable than the reports made them seem. When the dust dies down, however, it won't matter exactly what Spike Lee said; the effect was to put his movie in the papers and on the evening news night after night. Like some other great directors, he is also a great promoter of his projects.
Talking to Lee after seeing the movie, I observed he'd been out on a very long limb, and that if the film hadn't lived up to its hype, he'd be in big trouble about now.
"I have confidence," he said, "so anything I say, I'm gonna back up. I would not be doing all this talk just to be wolfin' if I didn't think I had the product behind it. And Denzel's performance is the ace in the hole right there, cause he's in almost all the film, so if I'm getting a great performance from him, then the film has to be good."
Which is more or less true. Denzel Washington is at the heart of "Malcolm X" with a performance that spans 20 years, that shows him moving from the West to New York to the world stage, that has him changing from a two-bit gangster to an inspirational leader, and that shows his inner odyssey from dogmatic racial separatism to a growing faith in racial harmony. The performance makes Washington the front-runner for this year's Academy Award.
Whether Lee will win, or be nominated, in the director's category is less certain; like Malcolm X, he has a genius for creating enemies by saying exactly what he thinks, whether or not it's what people want to hear. Sometimes, I suggested to him, the maelstrom of controversy must be so loud, it's hard to concentrate on the work.
"What you do," he said, "is, you're just so focused that you don't let the distractions get in front of the camera. Whatever happens that has to happen behind the camera - but between the camera and the actors, that's something different; that's sacred."
Lee is a small man with a sideways grin and trademark glasses. He doesn't at first look prepossessing, but he has a confidence and a brashness that fills every space he finds himself in. I remember seeing him for the first time in 1986 at the Cannes Film Festival, where he brought a low-budget first feature named "She's Gotta Have It." It was clear from the start that Lee had it, that he was one of those natural filmmakers, like Martin Scorsese, for whom directing movies seemed like second nature.
Lee's great third film, "Do the Right Thing" (1989), showed a Brooklyn neighborhood that descends into racial hatred. It famously ended with two quotations on the screen. One was by Martin Luther King. The other, by Malcolm X, ended with the clarion call in which Malcolm summoned African-Americans to advance their cause "by any means necessary." I was in the Palais du Cinema at Cannes at the moment those words appeared, and I still remember the current that ran through the audience: Malcolm still had the power to shock and threaten, 25 years after his death.
Maybe it was then and there that Lee decided to make a film based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Maybe it was earlier.
"I was a convert when I read the book in junior high school, back in 1968-'69," he told me. "It's the most important book I'll ever read."
What was different inside you after you'd read it?
"The book gave me courage to do what I need to do to make the types of films I want to make. It takes commitment and it takes backbone not to go along with the status quo. You could easily be sucked into smiling and grinning and going for the money. That's the route I've chosen not to go."
You played hardball with Warner Bros. over the budget.
"It came in at $34 million, which is what I thought it had to cost."
Was there ever a time when you thought you'd lose that battle?
He smiled. "No. We had access to the negative. The footage had been stashed. There was no way that film could have been completed without us."
They also wondered why you had to go to Mecca and South Africa to shoot scenes.
"In an earlier stage, some executives at Warner Bros. could not understand why Nelson Mandela would be in the film at all. Once they saw the film, though, it made sense to them."
It did to me, too. Many biopics end with the death of the hero, perhaps a funeral, a shot of clouds in the sky, maybe some sad music. "Malcolm X" continues with a eulogy read over Malcolm's body (then, as now, by Ossie Davis) and then comes down to the present day, to a South African classroom where Mandela recites one of Malcolm's speeches to schoolchildren.
"It's very important to show that there's a link from Malcolm X to Mandela. Same way there's link with Marcus Garvey (the leader of an American back-to-Africa nationalist movement) at the beginning of the film. Malcolm's father was a Garveyite. Malcolm used Pan-Africanism to show the connection between what happens in Soweto and what happens on the corner in Harlem."
Seeing the movie, I said, I understood at a gut level why you felt it had to be made by a black director. Every writing class I've ever heard about begins with the advice, "write what you know," and yet when you applied that to the story of Malcolm, there was a lot of controversy.
"With some films - not every film - the director needs to come from the background. Francis Ford Coppola being an Italian-American enhanced the 'Godfather' movies. Martin Scorsese, being Italian-American, grew up in Little Italy, on Elizabeth and Mott Streets, and that enhanced 'Mean Streets,' 'Raging Bull' and 'Goodfellas.'
"And me, being African-American . . . well, I don't think a white director knows what it feels like to be an African-American. You might think you know, but you will never know what it means to be black in this country. Also, we did a lot of research, and the people I had to talk to would not have opened up to a white director."
The movie's title sequence sets a chilling tone for what follows. We hear one of Malcolm's speeches. We see the famous video footage of Rodney King being beaten by police. And we see an American flag that fills the screen, just like the flag at the beginning of "Patton," but this flag catches fire and burns until the cloth that is left forms an "X."
"We wanted to use powerful symbols for the opening sequence," Lee said. "The American flag was one; let's burn the flag until it comes to a figure 'X.' And let's use the Rodney King footage, but let's really show it. People have seen it a million times in their homes, so let's put on an effect on it that makes it seem eerie when projected on a big giant screen. It gives it that much greater impact. And then we wanted to have a Malcolm X speech over that. And by doing this, we showed that the conditions Malcolm X talked about are still with us today. It's not a history lesson, it's not a museum piece, it's not a dinosaur, and these are not fossils. This stuff is still with us."
It's crucial that the flag does not burn up. It burns down - down to an X. What is left is still American, and still Malcolm.
"He always said that no other country could produce a person like him."
The perception of Malcolm has changed in 30 years. I remember when he died, many people, including many blacks, found it hard to muster a lot of sympathy, because his ideas were out of step with the conventional wisdom of the times.
"There were a lot of black folks who felt he was a maniac. A lot of people been changing their stories about how they felt about Malcolm."
You use documentary footage of Martin Luther King commenting on Malcolm's assassination, and King sounds very measured, very controlled, not overcome by grief.
"I think that's the way Martin Luther King probably felt. Do you think it was cruel to use that sound bite? It seems like he's describing the weather, doesn't it?"
King was a politician; they were fighting for the same constituency.
"Exactly. Fighting for the same people."
There is a stunning composition in the film that shows Malcolm X addressing a Black Muslim rally, while standing in front of a gigantic portrait of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the movement and a man Malcolm first revered, then broke from in disenchantment. The movie suggests that Malcolm may have been assassinated by followers of Elijah, perhaps also with the complicity of the FBI and CIA, which both had him under surveillance and conceivably knew of the murder plot. In the scene, Lee moves his camera closer to Malcolm, and Elijah's eyes grow gigantic, burning behind him, bracketing him. How, I asked, have Elijah Muhammad's present-day followers, led by the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, accepted the film?
"We'll be hearing from Mr. Farrakhan, soon, I think," Lee said.
Has he seen the film?
"Not yet. I flew to Chicago and sat down with the minister before I started shooting. We sat for four hours, and he told me right off, 'You can do what you want to Malcolm, but my major concern is how you treat and how you portray the Honorable Elijah Muhammad."
And he may not be too happy.
"He may not."
What about audiences in general? This is a film over three hours long, about a man who has been dead nearly 30 years and was not popular when he was alive. How will audiences respond to it? Have you tested or sneaked it?
Lee looked pleased by what he was about to say. "That's one thing I refused to do. I refused to test-market this film. I am not one of these directors who likes some marketing genius to say, 'Well, Spike, it says here 39 percent of the people liked this and 42 percent liked that.' This film, I was going with my gut. I've done test-marketing on my other films, but there's too much riding at stake on this one, and I don't want to be subjected to any marketing research bull- - - -."
The more you had riding on the film, the less you wanted research.
"Exactly. That's definitely what I felt. Denzel and me, our necks were literally on the line. And if we gotta go down, let it be because it's our vision on the screen, not some committee."