Archive for Spike Lee’s Malcolm X

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Posted in Cultural Matters, Film Criticism, Movie Reviews, Uncategorized with tags , on November 27, 2020 by playthell

Spike Lee and the Malcolm X Movie Mess

A reprint from 1991

“We know we can’t satisfy everybody’s vision of Malcolm X. He has achieved mythic proportions …but we knew going into it that we’d have that problem,” said Spike Lee about his current work-in-progress, then he declared his intention “to be as honest as possible” and “to make a great film.” But in tackling this project Spike has not only undertaken a monumental artistic task, he has also waded into troubled political waters.

It will be hard enough to capture Malcolm’s complex personality and the epic tale that is his life story within the scope of a single feature film. But that may turn out to be the easy part. For around this film all the prickly questions of the relationship of politics and art have already begun to swirl. Given a decent script, I have no doubt that Denzel Washington will resurrect that warm charm and sunny smile, biting sarcasm, regal bearing, fearless posture and verbal virtuosity that combined to form the alchemy of Malcolm’s persona. But Spike will have to negotiate myriad hurdles-artistic and political-before the Malcolm X story reaches theaters.

This is not the first attempt to project the amazing life of Malcolm X onto the silver screen. All the other attempts failed. And they all faltered attempting to produce a .workable script that would satisfy the decision makers who could green light the project. Some distinguished names are associated with this history of failure, which extends over a period of 20 years. In 1967 film producer Marvin Worth acquired the rights to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, co-authored with Alex Haley, from Malcolm’s widow, Betty Shabazz, now an administrator at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, N.Y. Worth commissioned the distinguished Afro-American novelist James Baldwin to write the script.

On the face of it, this was an excellent choice. For not only did Baldwin know Malcolm personally, he was also deeply committed to the black liberation struggle. However, after a year of livin’ large in Tinseltown at studio expense, he failed to come up with a usable and finished script. Two other novelists tried their hand at it and failed: David Bradley, a black college professor and author of the celebrated novel The Chaneysville Incident, and Calder Willingham author of the novel Eternal Fire. Two Pulitzer prize-winning dramatists also bit the dust trying to produce a viable script: Charles Fuller and David Mamet.

Fuller, a product of the sixties Black Arts Movement, was significantly influenced-like most of us of that generation-by the example of Malcolm X. So there can be no doubt that he took his task to heart. A brilliant playwright who has taken us on marvelous excursions into the soul of African American culture, he seemed destined for the project. But alas, zilch. After Fuller wrote the script, director Norman Jewison, with whom Fuller had collaborated on the Academy Award-nominated film version of his Pulitzer prize-winning’ play, A Soldier’s Play, abandoned the project.

Jewison told Mother Jones, “If I knew how to do it, I would move heaven and high water tomorrow to do it. The man’s an enigma to me. I just haven’t licked it. I know Spike Lee wants to get involved, and, at the moment, I would encourage him to do it because the film should be made.” As for Charlie Fuller, he ain’t talkin’. So perhaps we’ll never know what really went down with the script. And David Mamet, the much acclaimed white playwright, met a similar fate after writing a script that • director Sidney Lumet described as having a “breathtaking sweep and extraordinary language.” But perhaps its untimely death was the best fate, because Lumet had planned to cast Richard Pryor in the lead role. That would have been a travesty, for while Pryor is an extraordinary performer, he does not posses either the physical stature or the resources as a mature dramatic actor to play Malcolm X.

So if Malcolm’s story is going to reach the screen anytime soon, in a fashion that will do him proud, it looks as if Spike is going to have to do it. Whereas all the other writers have chosen to start from scratch, Spike is rewriting the James Baldwin script which had been completed by Arnold Perl. I thought it was a great script except for the last third-because a lot of history about Malcolm’s assassination has come out since it was completed.” But even with the Baldwin/Perl script as a foundation, Spike will have his work cut out for him.

First of all, there is the question of a suitable length. Everyone who has worked on this project agrees that the normal two and a half hours allotted for most feature films will not suffice. And while the question of length involves aesthetics, in Malcolm’s story it is also political. It is difficult to imagine a situation where the competing claims of politics and aesthetics impinge upon the creative process as much as in the present film. One film pundit confided, “If Spike makes this film anything less than four hours long he’s doomed.” Another assured me, “It can’t be done in one movie. The only way you can tell Malcolm’s story effectively is with two movies of about three hours and ten minutes each.”

But Spike is tightlipped about the length; all he is saying is, “I will have final cut-It’s an epic story.” An epic story indeed, for Malcolm X’s life symbolizes the triumph of the African American spirit over the crippling experience of racial caste oppression. It is also a metaphor for the American Dream: the rise from poverty to prominence. Hence it is a quintessentially American story that embodies as much of Americana as the music of Duke Ellington. Neither of these phenomena could have happened anywhere else in the world. As the premier American promoter and great bullshit artist Don King would say, “Only in America.”

The story of Malcolm X begins with a working class black family in Lansing, Mich., where the father-a militant black nationalist and Garveyite preacher-is mysteriously killed by a trolley car. The mother, a West Indian immigrant who could pass for white, is driven mad while Malcolm is still a child. The family is fragmented and Malcolm ends up years later as a Harlem hipster who only wants to snort nose candy, rag down in fly zoot suits and lindyhop his ass off at the Savoy Ballroom and other dance emporiums.

He has a strange sadomasochistic love affair with a beautiful Boston white girl whose folks are holding grand-theft dough. He later goes to jail, after participating in a variety of criminal activities, and in yet another incarnation emerges from his dungeon as Malcolm X, the most devoted and inspired disciple of Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam. As the chief spokesman for the Nation, Malcolm becomes one of the most influential charismatic revivalists of the turbulent sixties. Like Othello’s, his is a hell of a story.

No one understands the magnitude of the task of telling Malcolm’s story more than Spike Lee, who has said, “Everybody else who’s working on this film-if they don’t think this is the most important film in the history of cinema, I don’t want them on it.” Spike is gping all out to bring forth a film that will be distinguished by its fidelity to Malcolm’s life and times. Aside from Malcolm’s autobiography, Spike is reviewing journalistic accounts from the sixties, reading Malcolm’s speeches, watching TV clips and, most of all, interviewing family, friends and associates.

Among those he has personally interviewed is Minister Louis Farrakhan. This is a critical interview, because Farrakhan and Malcolm were as tight as Dick’s hat band during the crucial years of Malcolm’s ministry in the Nation of Islam. And beyond that, Farrakhan, although never linked to the shooting, in the minds of many people who lived through that era, was implicated in Malcolm’s assassination. This question continues to dog Farrakhan, and it came up in an interview conducted by EMERGE(see August 1990).

Farrakhan burst into tears when confronted with a clipping from Muhammad Speaks, in which he seems to be calling for Malcolm’s demise because he was a traitor to the Nation of Islam. By his account, Spike did not fudge the issue when he spoke with Farrakhan. “I showed him the paper clippings from Muhammad Speaks, where his comments suggested Malcolm ought to be killed,” said Spike of his meeting with Farrakhan in Chicago.

He frankly admitted his role in creating the conditions of hostility leading to Malcolm’s assassination and said, ”It was the climate of the times. I would do it differently if I had to do it over again.” But interestingly enough, it was not his own image that caused Farrakhan concern. ”He was most concerned about how the Honorable Elijah Muhammad would be portrayed,” said Spike. ”But Minister Farrakhan did not ask to see the script or anything. He just said, ‘Listen to everybody’s truth Spike, pray, and then come up with your own truth.'”

The greatest danger to the realization of this film has to do with neither art nor commerce but with politics, intergroup and intragroup politics. On the one hand there is the age-old struggle of African Americans to control their image in the mass culture and on the other, there is the fight for artistic autonomy from those in-group political factions that would make creative endeavors subservient to the demands of politics.

The fight waged by Afro-Americans to control their own image goes back to the 18th century, when Benjamin Banneker-scientist and writer-was forced to challenge and debunk Thomas Jefferson’s racist ruminations on black people by word and deed. This resistance grew throughout the 19th century and manifested itself in a steady stream of written and spoken polemics, political struggle, art, music, dance and finally, musical theater.

One could argue that history was a major impetus to the rise of a native Afro-American musical theater that produced works like Chlorindy: The Origin of the Cake Walk, by the Paul Laurence Dunbar and composer Will Marion Cook, or In Abbyssinia , a musical review by Bob Cole, J. Rosamond Johnson,  and his brother James Weldon Johnson. “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a multi-stanza art song popularly known as the ”Black National Anthem,” by James Weldon Johnson and his J. Rosamond Johnson.

Afro-American film historian Donald Bogle, the premier authority on blacks in American movies, concluded, “American films are still dominated by stereotypes and distortions. And the history of blacks in films remains one in which individual actors and actresses have often had to direct themselves; rather than playing characters, they have often had to play against their roles.”

The first black character in American movies appeared in the 1903 silent film Uncle Tom’s Cabin, based on the 19th century novel of the same title. But as Bogle points out, “The great paradox was that in actuality Torn was not black at all. Instead he was portrayed by a nameless, slightly overweight white actor made up in black face.” And he offers this analysis of the evolution of the Afro-American image on the silver screen: “After the Torn’s debut, there appeared a variety of black presences bearing the fanciful names of the coon, the tragic mulatto, the mammy, and the brutal black buck. All were character types used for the same effect: to entertain by stressing Negro inferiority.”

Bogle argues that these archetypes survived into the 1980s and says, of the white American films of the last decade that, “the 1980s might be viewed as the age of the hybrid stereotype: a time when major stars played characters who were sometimes part coon/part buck, sometimes part coon/part mammy. Then, too, black men frequently found themselves de-sexed, rarely permitted romantic roles. Women had few major parts.”

The fabulous flowering of the first authentic Afro- American cinema was sparked by the achievements of one young man: Spike Lee. Like trumpeter Wynton Marsalis-who has almost single-handedly inspired a renaissance in classical acoustic jazz-Spike is the father of the contemporary black film movement. In his five films that have made it to theater screens, he has given us a fascinating portrait of Afro-American life. From the outset, Spike has sought to bring artistic values to black cinema. Hence, we have an array of vigorous and varied black characters that run the gamut from sophisticated cosmopolites to uncouth ghetto fools. He has explored important topics previously ignored in American movies and brought African American art music, i.e., jazz, to the sound tracks of his films, thus introducing it to new audiences around the world.

And while Spike has not always succeeded in his creative efforts, I agree with Bogle’s assessment of his contribution, that “the director’s style (and his refusal to make a formula picture) proved fresh and original.” She’s Gatta Have It “was a true rarity; a black film with a black sensibility.” However, this assessment is not shared by some members of the black community.

Some even accuse Spike of subverting black culture, distorting the history of the black liberation movement, and just generally calling us out of our names. Some of the charges that are now being leveled at Spike, by people who oppose his efforts to make the Malcolm X film, are equivalent to calling him a charlatan or an ignoramus. Most offensive in this regard is Amiri Baraka, ne LeRoi Jones, the aging sixties radical, who recently showed up . at Spike’s door and presented him with a letter stating his concerns about how Spike would handle Malcolm’s story. “We were holding a meeting at the time,” said Spike. “So, I just accepted the letter and told him I would read it.”  But before he could respond, Baraka went public.

Railing against Spike at a Harlem rally on August 3, Baraka exhorted a crowd of about 200 listeners not to let Malcolm X’s life “be trashed to make middle-class Negroes sleep easier.” He also announced that he had come “to bring the issue of Mr. Lee’s exploitation film to the masses.” However, some observers who have worked with Baraka in the past and know him well, are skeptical about what motivated this latest outburst. Dr. Maulana (Ron) Karenga, whose Kawaida philosophy Baraka once passionately embraced and then denounced-along with Karenga himself-when he converted to Marxism, thinks: “LeRoi Jones is just trying to call attention to himself, get a little free publicity.”

And writer Greg Tate takes a similar view: “Baraka is just jealous because he’s no longer getting the kind of attention he used to get. Spike has the ear of the people, and he doesn’t anymore, and I believe he can’t stand it. He seems to hate any young black person who is successful.” One irony is that Spike has collaborated on three books, all associated with the release of his films, with Lisa Jones, who is Baraka’s bi-racial daughter by his first marriage.

But whatever motivated Baraka to launch this bitter and ill-conceived attack on Spike, his speech up in Harlem suggests that he is losing his grip on reality. After all, he denounces the black middle class, while just retiring from a protracted war with Rutgers over tenure demands. And what, pray tell, is more bourgeois than a tenured professor at a major white university? And the 200 or so curious onlookers hardly constituted the African American “masses.”

Indeed, this appears to be the rhetoric of a sadly deluded man. And it is not the worst of it; there are other aspects of Baraka’s behavior regarding the role of Spike Lee as a filmmaker that are troubling. For instance, when Baraka appeared on my radio show over WBAl on July 30, he argued that Spike was part of a conspiracy to trash and discredit the Black Liberation Movement of the sixties and subvert the black cultural revolution, a phenomenon he never defined. As proof of Spike’s evil intentions, Baraka pointed out that Spike had refused to publish his critical treatise on Spike’s movies in his recent anthology Five For Five (Stewart, Tabori & Chang). And he said of Spike, “There is a retrograde trend to people here who are being aggrandized based on the fact of their opposing the historical struggles of black people, and I see Spike Lee as one of those. I don’t see where his films have supported the Black Movement.”

This attack was bad enough, but when I read Baraka’s essay “Spike Lee at the Movies,” I knew why Lee didn’t publish it. A vulgar Marxist tract, handicapped by leaden prose and anachronistic ideas, it reads like the ranting of a religious devotee who has flipped his wig. Coming from the pen of one of the most important writers to emerge from the sixties Black Arts Movement, it is a sad and alarming document that is distinguished by a total absence of original thought.

Baraka’s essay is riddled with Marxist cliches and sloganeering which often substitute for thoughtful analysis. For instance, Spike’s innovative and artistic low-budget satire on male-female relations, She’s Gotta Have It, was “tied to an ingenuous bourgeois feminism. (It’s best defense.) The ‘turn-around’ Nola practices, as equality, is still not correct. Revenge, perhaps, but here an entitlement of her philosophical freedom.” Then he tells us why the film is finally unrighteous: “Womanizing among men is negative and needs to be opposed. Manizing by ‘free’ women is normal bourgeois society.”

The fact that Baraka can only perceive Spike’s sexy, stylish and riotously funny film in such morose terms exposes this self-proclaimed revolutionary as a closet puritan. But Ishmael Reed, a novelist poet and essayist of extraordinary intellect and imagination, who is attacked along with Ralph Ellison in Baraka’s cliche-ridden diatribe, has Baraka’s number on this issue: “His remarks about Spike Lee just reinforce the stereotype that the black intelligentsia slavishly devouring intellectual scraps that are thrown out from the academic big house. They seem to always be behind the trends. Marxism, as an economic theory, is being abandoned all over the world. They are still writing essays that use the language of deconstruction when this theory is being abandoned. They still think phenomenology is hip. If Baraka doesn’t like Spike’s films, he should make his own.”

Spike concurs with Ishmael’s view: “With all the problems that plague black people, why are they attacking me? Baraka is full of shit. “When Malcolm was alive, I was a little kid but Baraka was a grown man. And what was he doing? He was running around the Village with Allen Ginsberg being a beatnik. He didn’t even move uptown to Harlem until after Malcolm was assassinated! I don’t tell Baraka what to write in his books, and he can’t tell me what to say in my films.”

However, Baraka is not alone in his skepticism about Spike’s intentions for Malcolm’s story. A pamphlet issued by the hastily formed United Front to Preserve the Legacy of Malcolm X and the Cultural Revolution echoes many of the questions raised in Baraka’s essay. In fact, much of it reads as if written by Baraka, whose name is prominently displayed in it. The United Front is largely composed of middle-aged political activists, many of whom knew Malcolm X. Its purpose is to further ,Political objectives. But Spike Lee, and all artists, must fervently resist any effort to reduce them to nothing more than vehicles for political propaganda. For this possibility poses a far greater danger to the future of African American culture than any honest mistake Spike might make in telling Malcolm’s story. In a work of art, the vision of the artist must be paramount.

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Playthell G. Benjamin

Reprinted from Emerge Magazine

November Issue, 1991