I woke up with Spike Lee this morning, in conversation with Alec Baldwin on his podcast Here’s The Thing. The conversation was recorded in front of a live audience as part of the Tribeca Film Festival, a sweet trip down memory lane for the two baby boomers born, raised and devoted to New York City.
I was particularly fascinated by the stories surrounding the making of Malcolm X — Lee's biopic on the life of the late activist. As Jacqueline Trescott wrote in August 1991: “...Malcolm X represented an uncompromising black manhood, strong black nationalism, eloquence of anger and love and a counterpoint to black leaders who seemed too eager to work with the government.”
I remember reading the The Autobiography of Malcolm X — a collaborative effort between X & the writer Alex Haley — in my early twenties and being captivated at the scope of his life and its bitter honesty. I came away with a profound respect for the man formerly known as Malcolm Little, a poor kid from Nebraska who attempted to stand tall against the depredations of white society.
Lee was an outspoken personality and one of the only known directors of colour — known for School Daze, Do The Right Thing & Jungle Fever — in the early nineties. When he discovered that an adaptation of Malcolm X’s life was to be helmed by a white man, Lee was quick to fan the flames. The media storm brought about a private tête-à-tête with Norman Jewison — best remembered for the brilliant In The Heat Of The Night — who eventually handed over keys to the castle.
Upon scouring the world wide web, I uncovered a treasure trove of articles on the tensions around the making of the film. It helped me to gauge the gravity of the situation, of the enormous burden that rested upon the 34 year-olds shoulders. Lee faced dissent from all sides with particular scrutiny from the old guard — former disciples to the fallen martyr.
The production was also fraught with budget difficulties — Lee heeded the advice of fellow filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola to get "the movie-company pregnant" — resulting in complications with the bond completion company when cost overruns proved inevitable. In an unprecedented show of support, renowned African American celebrities the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Prince and Janet Jackson donated to the film to see it through to completion.
The film was widely praised on its release, garnering rave reviews while mopping up at the box office. Lee predicted that Denzel Washington would bring home the Oscar for his portrayal while offering the following threat; "If he doesn't, we'll burn the Academy down.” — Washington would end up losing out to Al Pacino for his performance in Scent of A Woman.
Lucky for Hollywood, Lee has one hell of a poker face.