A Direct Hit

November 15, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

NEW YORK — New York--He's gotta have it. And he's gonna get it.

You just watch. Spike Lee will have it all -- success, power, fame, celebrity, artistic freedom -- beginning Wednesday, when "Malcolm X" opens nationwide.

That is, his "Malcolm X." The one he fought for shamelessly, employing every trick in his considerable bag, crushing his way through controversy after controversy on sheer will and the nerves of a cat burglar, called racist by some and betrayer of the faith by others, just pushing onward through $35 million of Warner Brothers' money, even cutting his own salary by two-thirds to bring the film in on time.

"This is it!" he says. "Exactly the way I want it. There won't be a director's cut on laser disk coming out in a couple of years. This is the director's cut."

The filmmaker, a 35-year-old with a teen's scrawny, playground-honed body and a professor's wise eyes the size of headlamps blown larger still by the amplifying lenses of his famous specs, twists like a pretzel, squirms and knits and sometimes seems to rise off the couch to strut, his Nikes akimbo, his jeans taut, as if he's dying to get out and shoot hoops. But no: He sits in a New York hotel room as he explains the whole long story of his fight to bring Malcolm, his Malcolm, to the screen.

And in this world, one mythic figure seems to run rampant, sometimes surprising even Lee. Lee is in awe of what this fellow has accomplished; he seems, in some way, not connected to him at all. It's almost as if when Spike Lee gets in trouble, he can whistle and a super figure will come hurtling out of the sky to kick butt and blow aside his enemies.

This figure is "Spikelee," whom Lee discusses dispassionately or passionately, as the case may be, in the third person, declaiming, "Spikelee never said this!" or "Spikelee did say that!"

The pressure's on

And sometimes Spikelee himself seems to occupy Spike Lee, take over his body, get him to yowling a bit. Spikelee, for example, gives up the carefully modulated grammar and chooses instead the bright but rough poetry of the streets. A reporter, perhaps unwisely, tells him what stress she was under when she was writing a piece on Malcolm for her newspaper, and he swells in animation and power and indignation. "That ain't the same! That ain't stress! Stress is when the whole damn world is in your face saying 'Don't f it up!' That's what stress is! We had to make a great film, no ifs, ands or buts!"

How did he get through such pressure?

"You don't think about it. It's like coming to bat with the bases loaded or trying to sink free throws with the game on the line. You think about it, and you're dead. You think about it afterward, when you've done it. But you just do it, that's all."

He's asked about his first exposure to Malcolm X, the man.

"I can't remember exactly when I first read the book," he recalls, trying to put a finger on his first experience with Alex Haley's "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." "It was probably junior high school. But I remember thinking, 'This is the most important book I'll ever read.' "

Timing is everything

What happened next was timing.

"Everything is timing," Lee confirms, "and this is the right time for this movie. It came to us just as Denzel [Washington, who plays the title role] and I had acquired a little clout."

How it came to them at that moment in history is another story altogether, involving the producer Marvin Worth, who had owned rights to the book since the early '70s and had been nursing it along, through screenwriters as varied as James Baldwin and David Mamet and Charles Fuller, ever since. Nevertheless, come it did, in the form of a $35 million budget and a $3 million payoff for Lee.

"I don't think I was ready until then. Those first five films were definitely preparation. I did not then have the necessary skills to make it. This was a huge film. I would not have been ready. Everything after will be post-Malcolm."

Asked how he knew he was ready, his eyes light up mischievously.

"When I signed the contract."

Walking a tightrope

He's asked about the troubling question of truth as balanced against storytelling necessities, such as drama and humor.

"You have to walk a tightrope between history and entertainment. It's not a documentary, and you do have a license. But you can't misuse that license, take advantage of that license."

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