NEW YORK -- Rap performers use Malcolm X's words like drumbeats. College students carry copies of his autobiography around like Bibles. Street vendors in Harlem hawk T-shirts with his name and face in 14 different styles.
But as the martyred black nationalist leader's popularity grows 26 years after his assassination, an intense debate is stirring over what exactly Malcolm X's legacy is or should be.
So hot is the debate that even before Spike Lee has started filming his treatment of Malcolm X, a movement is afoot to stop him. None of the two dozen or so protest organizers, led by the poet Amiri Baraka, has seen the film's script. But they say that based on their scrutiny of Mr. Lee's past films, they are sure he will exploit the Black Muslim's life, corrupt his history and forever taint the legacy of one of the country's most revered leaders of the black liberation movement.
People of various political stripes claim to be heir to Malcolm X's political philosophy -- from a new generation of young militants, including members of the rap group Public Enemy, to the conservative Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. The groups are equally protective and possessive of the Malcolm X they revere and wary that others will misconstrue his true message and contributions.
"There are various constituencies within the black community that feel as if they own Malcolm X," said Henry C. Gates Jr., W. E. B. DuBois professor of sociology at Harvard University. "So anybody is going to be attacked who does something with Malcolm they don't agree with. Even God couldn't make the movie that would please all these segments."
But at a rally earlier this month attended by 200 people in Harlem "to bring the issue of Mr. Lee's exploitation film to the masses," Mr. Baraka and several other protesters said the film's release could quash an incipient cultural revolution.
"We will not let Malcolm X's life be trashed to make middle-class Negroes sleep easier," Mr. Baraka said, adding that Mr. Lee was never a part of the struggles of inner-city blacks and had made films that perpetuated negative stereotypes.
Mr. Lee said in an interview that he would not bow to pressure from any group, noting that Mr. Baraka and others wanted to analyze the content of his script, written by James Baldwin and Arnold Perl in 1969. The Warner Brothers film, with a reported $40 million budget, will star the Academy Award winner Denzel Washington. Production is scheduled to begin next month.
"There are 30 million blacks in this country," he said. "I think more of them are on my side than" Mr. Baraka's.
On a recent radio talk show in New York, Mr. Lee and two of his critics sounded off again, with Mr. Lee stressing that he would not allow his film to be made by a committee. But he agreed to discuss the issue on the air with an open audience in Harlem in the near future.
Mr. Baraka's criticism of Mr. Lee is not limited to the subject of Malcolm X. In a film-by-film, almost character-by-character critique of the writer-director's works, Mr. Baraka said that "She's Gotta Have It" made the black woman's struggle for equal rights look like nymphomania and that "School Daze" turned black colleges into "brown-skinned Animal Houses," reducing black issues to a comic burlesque.
"Do the Right Thing," Mr. Baraka said, has no sympathetic black characters and trivializes the issue of violence against blacks.
"People ask me, why you messing with Spike?" Mr. Baraka said. "Spike Lee is part of a retrograde movement in this country."
The protesters' main worry is over which part of Malcolm X's life Mr. Lee's film will focus on. Some said they feared too much attention would be given to Malcolm X's days as a pimp called Detroit Red.
Or worse, they fret that the film will make him seem in the end like Martin Luther King Jr. -- a revisionist portrait, some said, that is being pushed by the middle class to take the edge off some of Malcolm X's most militant writings.
Elombe Brath, a Harlem community leader, said there were various degrees of opposition to Mr. Lee among the organizers of the protests. Some, he said, do not want Mr. Lee to make any film about Malcolm X. Others hope their public urgings will force him to examine Malcolm X's life to create an in-depth portrait. They say they plan a boycott if Mr. Lee does not "do the right thing."
"We're not talking about 'The Satanic Verses' here," Mr. Brath added. "We're not talking censorship. We're talking about doing the right thing. The life of Malcolm X should not be another 'Spike Lee joint,' as he calls his films."
Mr. Lee's film, he said, should follow the letter and spirit of Malcolm X's life. It should detail his prison conversion to the Nation of Islam, trace his growth as a preacher of black pride, action and self-reliance, and his eventual break from the Nation. Three Black Muslims were convicted of shooting him to death in 1965 and were sentenced to life in prison. Malcolm X was 40 at the time.