Length of 'Malcolm X' may no longer be controversial

April 20, 1992|By Bernard Weinraub | Bernard Weinraub,New York Times

HOLLYWOOD -- Denzel Washington remarked the other day that his newest film, "Malcolm X," would not be the most controversial film of the year. "It's going to be the most controversial film of the decade," he said.

It's probably just Hollywood hyperbole, but the actor's comment underlines the anticipation here for the forthcoming Spike Lee film, which is stirring even more talk, if that's possible, than that other controversial Warner Brothers film, Oliver Stone's "JFK." And "Malcolm X," which is being edited, doesn't even open until Thanksgiving.

What got the "Malcolm X" controversy going and has kept it bubbling -- always good for business -- are issues involving money and personality coupled with the continuing fascination with and debate over the legacy of Malcolm X, the black nationalist leader who was slain 27 years ago.

The movie, starring Mr. Washington, has been filmed in Harlem, upstate New York, Egypt and South Africa, among other places, and Mr. Lee, who has never been shy about his own endeavors, has described it as "an epic picture on the scale of the great films that David Lean did." The reference was to "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Dr. Zhivago."

The problem with epics, though, is they are expensive and run far longer than two hours, hardly what movie executives are seeking in the current recessionary mood.

Initially budgeted at $28 million, which is not elaborately expensive, the movie's costs have climbed to $33 million. This prompted the Completion Bond Co., which insures investors against films going over budget, to take financial control of the movie and inform Mr. Lee that his film was to be no longer than 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Mr. Lee recently showed Warner Brothers executives a four-hour version and said that if Oliver Stone could create a more than three-hour movie about John F. Kennedy, then he should have equal time for Malcolm X. Studios generally abhor great length in films because it reduces the number of times a day the film can be shown at theaters.

But the producer of "Malcolm X," Marvin Worth, who has made such movies as "Lenny" and "The Rose," made it plain that he wanted a three-hour film if that was what Mr. Lee wanted. "I showed a four-hour cut to Warner's and the bond company and no one even went to the bathroom," he said. "They loved it." Mr. Lee is in New York editing the movie.

The film is largely based on a screenplay written more than 20 years ago by James Baldwin and Arnold Perl, who are both dead.

Mr. Worth said that Malcolm X's widow, Betty Shabazz, served as a consultant on the movie, which traces Malcolm's life from his early days of petty crime to his prison conversion to the Nation of Islam and his rise to become a leader who preached black pride and self-reliance.

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