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How Spike Lee and Denzel Washington Turned ‘Malcolm X’ Into a Hollywood Epic

In the aftermath of the L.A. riots, a determined filmmaker and a brilliant actor overcame budget concerns and voices of dissent to transform the life story of a radical black thinker into a cinematic masterpiece

The essence of the current cultural discourse is that everything we watch is at least latently political. And we, the people, are hungry for political art. This recurring column, The Politics of American Movies, will explore everything from racially progressive Westerns and anti-fascist comedies to documentaries about the working class and popcorn flicks with subversive bite.

On the afternoon of April 29, 1992, at the corner of Florence and Normandie avenues in Los Angeles, a riot was born. You already know the story — we’ve been retelling it a lot, lately. The police beating just outside of Simi Valley, the 81-second Handycam recording taken by a plumber looking on from his Lake View Terrace apartment, the acquittal, the riots, the nearly $1 billion in property damage, the incalculable damage done to the national psyche. It’s a complex, exhausting, dispiriting history.

Here’s a footnote to that history. Elsewhere in Los Angeles the very same day, in a screening room on the Warner Bros. lot, a group of studio execs were finally getting to see the four-hour cut of their latest gamble, a $33 million epic that had gone so far over budget the editor and director had at one point been locked out of the editing room by the bond company hired by the studio. The movie was Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. From the start, it’d been a storied production. There’d been 20-odd years of false starts, a public shake-up of directors, protests decrying the potential mishandling of the material, and constant fights over money, length, and scope. But the movie the executives saw that day, watching from within the safe remove of the studio gates as L.A. burned all around them, justified itself. It was an unprecedented masterpiece. And it was more timely than anyone could have predicted.

Malcolm X turned 25 last week. But from its very opening frames it still singes with urgent confrontation. The movie opens with the righteous noise of one of Malcolm X’s speeches, as performed by Denzel Washington, corralling us to look on as a burning American flag fills the screen. That image is interspersed, shockingly, with glimpses of Rodney King getting beaten. As the images skin our eyes, jazz composer Terence Blanchard’s terrifying funeral march sears our eardrums. Over the course of a few minutes, that American flag burns away. All that’s left, in the end, is an X — a gesture that brings Malcolm X’s fierce rhetoric, to say nothing of his status as an icon, into the present, feverishly, with a harrowing sense of fury. “I’m not American,” Washington’s Malcolm says. “You’re not American.”

The movie hasn’t even really started, and yet merely a couple of minutes in, Lee has drawn a direct line from Rodney to Malcolm, and from Malcolm to America. It’s an idea that would seem to have sprouted from the circumstances of that initial screening. “It was almost like a out-of-body experience,” Lee would say of the screening in the making-of documentary that accompanies the film, By Any Means Necessary. “Seeing this film, talking about all the hell black people had gone through, and then knowing at the same time L.A. was in turmoil.”

It must have resounded with irony for Lee, who broke into the American mainstream with 1989’s Do the Right Thing, a movie that, as early as its Cannes screening, incited some critics to predict it would cause riots (it wasn’t meant as a compliment, but a smart provocateur like Lee might have read it as one). Lee’s films, as rigorous and impassioned as they were filled with a rich view of black speech, style, and behavior, could incite riots — but they would never have been the cause, being themselves a symptom of a greater anger. And by 1992, no one needed a Hollywood movie to sum up their anger. The Rodney King beating — a devastating series of images in their own right — had already done that work. We didn’t need the likes of Radio Raheem getting choked to death to sum up black subjection. We didn’t need true-seeming fictions: We had King, we had Latasha Harlins. We had Malcolm X.

The public was more than ready for a Malcolm X picture, thanks to the long afterlife of the man himself, who in the years after his death became even more of a political and intellectual beacon for blacks and black art. He was a symbol: a face on T-shirts and books on college bookshelves; a rhetorical, stylistic, and political influence on hip-hop; a man whose early ideas about race, violence, and resistance remained some of the most compelling tools in a fight that lasted not only through 1992, but to the present.

Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little, was a firebrand, not only because of what or how he thought, but because of how his mastery of language gave those thoughts a specific rhetorical force, a power that — through humor, rhythm, and an unimpeachable knack for common-sense logic — was being used to challenge white cultural dominance as we know it. He was also a man who underwent great change over the course of his life, from a being a crook to a prison inmate to a devoted minister of the Nation of Islam to a humanitarian who believed Islam and openness to racial cooperation could save America from racism.

Now, he was getting the Denzel Washington treatment: He was the subject of a big Hollywood movie. Washington, already one Oscar deep into his career, was widely regarded as one of the very best actors in the country — better yet, he was an established star. One of the biggest movie studios in town was bankrolling an epic about one of the most radical, challenging political figures in the history of the country — and in Lee, they’d found one of the nation’s most challenging mainstream filmmakers to make it.

When Malcolm X landed in theaters nationwide in November 1992, it’d been “slimmed down” to three hours and 22 minutes. It was burdened with weird hype. Everyone had heard that Norman Jewison, a respected white Hollywood director who’d tackled race in his work before (most notably in the Best Picture winner In the Heat of the Night, as well as in the 1984 military drama A Soldier’s Story), had originally been hired for the project; everyone had heard Spike Lee huff and puff in the press over a project of this nature needing a black director. Jewison backed down.

That was only the beginning of Lee’s fight — though, really, the fight to make the movie had begun long before he was even involved. The script is based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley, which was published in 1965, merely months after Malcolm X was assassinated. Marvin Worth, a young producer at the time, bought the rights from Haley and Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz, in 1967. Worth, who would go on to carve out a unique career for himself in Hollywood (producing the 1974 Lenny Bruce biopic Lenny and the Bret Easton Ellis adaptation Less Than Zero) had special insight here: He’d known Malcolm back in Detroit, in the 1940s, when they were both teenagers and Malcolm, who in those days went by Detroit Red on account of his fiendishly red hair, was selling drugs. “He was 16 or 17 but looked older,” Worth told The New York Times. “He was very witty, a funny guy, and he had this extraordinary charisma. A great dancer and a great dresser. He was very good-looking, very, very tall. Girls always noticed him. He was quite a special guy.”

The earliest version of the script was written in the late ’60s by James Baldwin, who quickly became disillusioned by Hollywood, particularly with some of the changes requested by higher-ups: to resist politicizing Malcolm’s life-changing trip to Mecca, for example, and to downplay his being betrayed by white people throughout his life in favor of emphasizing the extent to which he was controversial among blacks. Baldwin’s script, such as it was, was revised by Arnold Perl — a screenwriter who’d been blacklisted during the McCarthy era. It was sold to Warner Bros., where the project languished for years, attracting writers, directors, and stars as far-flung as David Mamet, Sidney Lumet, and Eddie Murphy. It finally got some traction with Jewison — then came Lee, who revised the Perl-Baldwin script to suit his own needs. (Perl remains credited as a coscreenwriter; Baldwin’s estate had his name removed, due to the numerous changes made to his original conceit.)

By the time Lee got his hands on the project, there had been a slew of successful biopics, or at least historical dramas based on real people, including epics like Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, and Oliver Stone’s JFK. Lee wanted to follow suit with a project spanning multiple decades and movie styles, to be shot in a handful of locations across the world, including the apartheid-stricken Soweto, South Africa. It would capture the full evolution of a richly complicated man — which sounds expensive because it was. Warner Bros. thought so, too. There were drawn-out fights between Lee and the studio, and then between Lee and the bond company putting up the money. It eventually got dire enough that Lee had to call on black celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby to help him foot the bill, giving him more control over the direction of the movie. “It came in at $34 million,” Lee told Roger Ebert at the time, “which is what I thought it had to cost.”

“Spike is unpredictable,” said Worth, in the Times. “He panics the establishment. You’re always getting phone calls about Spike from the studio: ‘He’s talking again to the press,’ ‘He’s making trouble,’ ‘He’s doing this,’ ‘He’s doing that.’” In the case of Malcolm X, “this” and “that” included a drawn-out fight over the handling of Malcolm’s legacy with poet Amiri Baraka, who was wary that the radical black thinker’s ideas would be softened to appease white and middle-class black audiences. It also included Lee’s infamous request to the press, three weeks before the movie’s release, that he only be interviewed by black reporters on the junket. Premiere, Vogue, Rolling Stone, and Interview all agreed to this. The Los Angeles Times did not. “What I’m doing is using whatever clout I have to get qualified African Americans assignments,” Lee said. “The real crime is white publications don’t have black writers, that’s the crime.”

It took a certain kind of director to make the movie; it may have even taken a certain kind of critic to make proper sense of it. Big-budget filmmaking is premised on widespread appeal: It needs to make money. It’s a tall order for a pricey studio movie to risk alienating most of the public — but then, American movie studios are myth factories, and Malcolm X had a tendency to rip American myths, particularly its racial ones, out by the root. Could the life of Malcolm X ever be a proper studio movie?

Reviews from its initial release bear this conflict out. “Malcolm X will offend many people for all the wrong reasons,” wrote Vincent Canby in The New York Times. “It is neither so inflammatory as Mr. Lee’s statements about it would have you believe nor so comforting as might be wished by those who would call a halt to speculation concerning Malcolm’s murder.” “Walking into Malcolm X,” wrote Roger Ebert, a consistent supporter of Lee’s films, “I expected an angrier film than Spike Lee has made. This film is not an assault but an explanation, and it is not exclusionary; it deliberately addresses all races in its audience.” Universalism is the word that’s missing here. Maybe it shouldn’t be. It’s the word that Baraka and his ilk were most wary of in regard to the film. You sense that one of the movie’s central missions is to prove them wrong — even as its initial reception proved them right.

Warner Bros.

There were multiple Malcolms. There was Malcolm Little, son of a Nebraska preacher, the boy whose father would be set on train tracks by the local Klan and killed. There was Detroit Red, the hustler, who’d wind up in prison. There was the inmate — the man who would be redeemed. There was the convert and, eventually, political icon, Malcolm X. There was the man who came after all that, el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, the man Malcolm was when he died.

Each of these Malcolms is given an ample slice of the movie. I watch it once a year, and I’m still taken aback by how long we spend chasing Red through Roxbury and Harlem, as he goes to dances, withstands chemical burns on his scalp for the sake of a hairstyle, hustles for a man named West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo), who ultimately tries to have him killed, and falls in lust with a white woman he eventually can’t help but humiliate, perhaps out of a need to make her feel the way her attraction makes him feel about himself.

We receive all of this in big, booming, glorious filmmaking, a deliberate throwback not only to the kind of grand studio storytelling that Malcolm X wants to invoke, but also to the images and myths Malcolm himself mimicked in his interactions, style, and behavior before converting to Islam. The movie performs the kind of life that Malcolm will eventually leave behind. To understand the all-encompassing weight of it, Lee steeps us in it. When Malcolm and Shorty (played by Spike Lee) play cops and robbers in the park, it’s in zoot suits, and their voices are aping the likes of Bogart and Cagney. They aren’t playing around as black criminals; it’s white criminals they’re mimicking. Movie criminals, specifically. Life needn’t always imitate art, but what Lee’s getting after in all this, by way of Malcolm’s own ideas, is that whiteness is a fantasy that black folks didn’t yet know they didn’t have to live. The straightened hair, the suits, the attitudes, the lust for white women: Lee’s filmmaking makes it feel like racial drag. And Malcolm’s later teachings will only affirm that idea.

But Lee’s filmmaking also undermines the fantasy of whiteness. When an early scene in a dance hall practically becomes a full-on musical within the movie, with couples breaking out into groups and performing less for the floor than to the camera, Lee turns what in any other movie would be a simple bullet point on Malcolm’s road to redemption — meeting a white woman — into a chance to bend an old-fashioned Hollywood set piece into a showcase of black expression. Everyone on the dance floor is a virtuoso — including Lee himself, who strangely becomes the star of the scene both in front of and behind the camera, as if part of the reason we’re here is for the sake of seeing Lee wield his ability to blacken up old Hollywood form, throwing it vigorously out of whack with his own, distinctly black film grammar.

All along, as Lee’s direction lavishes in the robust bigness of it all, Malcolm narrates. He speaks to us. It’s his decision, you sense, to keep interrupting the narrative to remind us of his childhood, in angry, lucid flashbacks. We get a glimpse of his Nebraska childhood in the visits from the Ku Klux Klan, who want to drive his family out of town, as well as of his mother, who has a mental breakdown after social services comes and takes her children away. Malcolm’s past, Lee’s film tells us, echoes his present. His father’s sermons, rooted in the Pan Africanism of Marcus Garvey, are later echoed in Malcolm’s own teachings about black people’s need to sustain themselves, to be their own nation, free of white cooperation or interference. The terrifying image of Malcolm’s childhood home in flames, his father standing in front of it and screaming to the departing Klansmen, is echoed in the image of Malcolm and Betty’s home in Queens burning brightly after being firebombed.

It’s enough to convince you that Malcolm’s conversion to Islam in prison is really a reversion: Years of miseducation in white schools, in white movies, in a white America, can’t undo the truth of who Malcolm is. The disruptive, angular flashbacks, with their jagged, didactic pain, remind us of this. No one ever accused Lee of being too subtle.

Denzel Washington is in almost every scene of the movie. He doesn’t squander it. He and Lee had already worked together on the fascinatingly fraught jazz film Mo’ Better Blues, in which Denzel reconfirmed his knack for embodying a specifically black form of male ego. It’s a terrified machismo, a mix of power and fear in which the advantages of manhood and disadvantages of blackness are keenly interlaced. It’s a wary pride. That’s certainly true of Mo’ Better Blues. Malcolm X is, of course, a little different: It was the premise of that man’s beliefs that blacks should be empowered to confront their limits and defend their right to do so — “by any means necessary,” to quote Malcolm himself.

Washington had performed as Malcolm X in an off-Broadway play some years before filming Lee’s film. He began to research the man back then. “I remember feeling two ways,” he told The New York Times in 1992 of his first orientation. “Like this was heavy, mean stuff and also like this was helping me get some things off my chest. There was something invigorating about being able to say things you felt. I remember thinking what it must have felt like to be so free to be able to say anything. It must have made for tension.”

You can feel Washington embracing that tension as he performs. One of the most exceptional stretches of filmmaking in this or, frankly, any other movie is that 40-minute stretch of Malcolm giving speeches, on street corners, in humble Harlem churches, and in grand conference halls. Lee takes his time with the sequence, breaking it up this way and that, at one point folding in a scene of Malcolm watching news footage of civil rights protesters getting attacked by dogs and hoses, at another giving us scenes that clue us in to the Nation’s growing wariness over Malcolm’s ascendence. Throughout all of it, we can hear Malcolm’s fiery speechifying. He has become a mouthpiece. It’s a fabulous sequence for communicating, through the vigor of Washington’s performance and Lee’s interactive, invigorating sense of style, what a virtuoso Malcolm X was with language. Malcolm’s speeches had a rhythmic clarity of ideas and a fiery wit that made his logic seem unimpeachable, seductive. He made art out of common sense. And Washington, with Lee at his side, surpasses mere mimicry or exacting recitation to ascend to an art of his own.

It’s a reminder, among other things, that Malcolm X is a bona fide Hollywood movie: It’s a film that could not have been achieved without a genuine matinee star, as the essence of the evolution it traces is not only one of politics, but also of charisma. That doesn’t make it any less radical, as Baraka and others feared. On the contrary, it shows an adventurous independent filmmaker perverting the demands of commercial art to his own ends. Malcolm X is about what the man at its center believed. But more than that, it’s about how he expressed that belief, how he came to be so expressive. It took a movie of this size and scope to make that make sense to the rest of us. And it took a filmmaker of Lee’s imagination, and an actor of Denzel’s fearless skill, to make us believe it.

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