PHILADELPHIA. — Philadelphia -- It should not surprise anyone that though Malcolm X has been dead for more than a quarter-century, his impact on black life in American continues to pulsate. The latest source of controversy surrounding Malcolm is the battle being waged between the film director Spike Lee and a legion of critics.
Chief among those concerned about Mr. Lee's film is the poet, author and playwright Amiri Baraka.
Mr. Baraka is being a bit unfair when he argues that the African-American community is not going to allow Mr. Lee to ''trash'' the image and memory of Malcolm X ''to make middle-class Negroes sleep easier.'' I agree with him that Malcolm's image is enormously significant and should not be distorted, as Hollywood is wont to do. But I can't think of anyone more qualified to do the Malcolm film than Mr. Lee.
Mr. Baraka and his cohorts are fuming because they fear Mr. Lee may succumb to the temptation to fictionalize Malcolm's life in order to make an attractive movie. I share those concerns. But anyone who is worried about Mr. Lee's maturity and who knew Malcolm ought to try to help Mr. Lee, not hurt him or his important project.
The Malcolm X I knew would have been fiercely annoyed by all the shouting and petty backbiting between the Lee and Baraka factions in this latest dispute. I interviewed Malcolm just weeks before he was assassinated in 1965 in a Harlem ballroom not far from where I grew up.
''I agree with a lot that you say, but I don't see how people can sign up with you,'' I said to him in the taped interview.
A quick and brilliant man, Malcolm came right back at me: ''They don't need to 'sign up.' The most effective part of trees are the roots. And they're 'signed up' with the tree but you don't ever see them. They're always beneath the ground.''
If whites feared Malcolm's incendiary rhetoric, blacks feared it too. He spoke boldly and candidly during a period when most other black leaders -- and those who followed them -- took relatively conciliatory positions in fighting racism. Ironically, Malcolm has gained far more emotional converts to his cause since his death than he could find when he lived.
Malcolm hated the divisiveness that existed in the black community. ''We can have differences,'' he once told me, stretching forth his right hand with his fingers extended. ''But we have to come together like a fist. . . . That's where a community gets its strength. A hand has five fingers, but when it curls, it becomes a indivisible force. That's what we must become,'' he said.
But in the end, an internal dispute between Malcolm and other Muslims isolated and alienated him from Elijah Muhammad, who had helped him gain worldwide respect. Ironically, divisiveness, the very thing Malcolm loathed, was the thing that brought him down.
One frightening Sunday in February 1965 two black men (who may have been puppets for another cause) came at Malcolm with guns in a crowded Harlem ballroom. When the noise went away Malcolm, who was in mid-sentence, warning against a dispute in the audience before him (which was part of the assassination plot), lay dead on the stage of the Audubon Ballroom. His pregnant wife, Betty Shabazz, screamed hysterically as the life oozed out of Malcolm.
It was a cold-blooded murder that killed a dream perhaps more powerful than that of Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated three years afterward. Malcolm's greatest dream was in bringing blacks together.
The thing he feared most about African Americans was the perpetual dissension that divides the community. Ironically, that negative characteristic continues even today as black artists battle about who can best tell the story of Malcolm X.
Such a dispute mocks his memory and suggests that people are more interested in perpetuating the myths surrounding the man than they are in spreading his important message. Near the end of my interview, I asked Malcolm how he'd like to be remembered.
He didn't hesitate a second:
''Sincere. In whatever I did or do, even if I make mistakes, they were made in sincerity. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong in sincerity. I think that's the best a person can be -- he can be wrong, but if he's sincere you can put up with him. But you can't put up with a person who's right, if he's insincere. I'd rather deal with a person's sincerity, and respect a person for their sincerity than anything else.''
If Malcolm were judging the current dispute surrounding his image, it seems he'd say that if Mr. Lee is sincere -- even if his interpretation is wrong -- he should be respected. Perhaps Malcolm X's own words can be used to settle the differences that divide Spike Lee and Amiri Baraka, who could come together to produce a valuable film that millions of Americans have waited a quarter-century to see.
=3Claude Lewis is a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist.