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Oscars 2017
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Inside ''Malcolm X''

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Spike Lee’s face is everywhere. Two stories tall, it stares down Los Angeles’ Melrose Avenue from the side of Spike’s Joint West, the newest branch of the clothing emporium he started three years ago. There’s his face again, on a smaller scale, on Lee’s white T-shirt. And then, above that, is the real thing: beard, glasses, and intense gaze. It’s a Saturday morning in October, and the grand opening of this newest Spike’s Joint. With a half-dozen camera crews focusing on him, Lee takes a giant pair of scissors and gamely saws at the red and green ribbons strung across the entrance.

Then he leads everybody upstairs for a jam-packed press conference. Wearing a red X cap and white Nikes, he is by turns dignified, funny, angry, contemptuous. This is his element. In the last few months, he has launched enough controversies to keep a room full of reporters busy for hours. Now they start hammering:

Why open a Spike’s Joint on lily-white Melrose instead of in a black neighborhood?

”I don’t have to defend myself,” Lee says. ”From day one everything I’ve done has been for black people. It seems unfair that any time a black American makes money there’s a problem.”

Wasn’t it irresponsible to urge black children to skip school to see Malcolm X on opening day?

”Spike never said, ‘Young black Americans should skip school,”’ says Lee, who often speaks of himself in the third person. ”But it’s important for families to take their kids early, because this is the most amount of money ever spent on a movie in black history, and we had to fight to get the amount we got.”

Does it bother him that many people wearing X hats and T-shirts don’t know who Malcolm X really was?

”Maybe wearing the hat is the first step,” Lee suggests, ”to going to the film, going out and getting more knowledge, picking up the book and reading it.”

What does 40 Acres and a Mule mean?

The room goes instantly silent when Katie Wagner, a blond and perky reporter for Britain’s Worldwide Entertainment News (and daughter of Robert), throws out this question. The phrase, which is the name of Lee’s music and production company, is all over the shelves of his store, on T-shirts, caps, jackets. He leans into the microphone and gives his answer slowly and quietly, like a lecturer: ”During the Civil War, slaves were promised that if they fought on the side of the Union, upon emancipation they would be given 40 acres and a mule as payback for 400 years of slavery. Of course, very few of our ancestors ever got 40 acres and a mule.” It’s the kind of history lesson white Americans shouldn’t need but often do — the kind Lee loves to give. ”Get her a copy of the book,” he tells an assistant, who pulls a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X from the shelf and hands it to the nonplussed Wagner. The 1965 book, written with author Alex Haley (Roots), is both the starting point and the blueprint for Lee’s movie. ”Now read it,” he tells her.

First Wagner, now the world. With the Nov. 18 opening of Malcolm X, a passionate and stately elegy to the life of the slain Black Muslim leader, Lee has written history with lightning. Telling a story that many observers — black and white — doubted he could do justice, he turned out a film already seen in some quarters as a masterpiece. And he did it in classic Lee style, bickering, complaining, and fighting every step of the way.

Mostly due to his penchant for publicity, the points of the story are familiar to anyone who reads the entertainment press: how Lee lobbied to take the picture away from a white director, his constant battles with Warner over the movie’s budget and length, how the film’s insurance company threatened to shut down the project when Lee sailed past his $28 million limit, how he embarrassed the studio by turning to wealthy black celebrities to help cover the overruns when it wouldn’t. At almost every turn, there was Lee causing another commotion in the press, backing his adversaries into a corner.

”I had to fight tooth and nail to get the film I wanted,” he says. ”It’s 3 hours and 21 minutes. If the film wasn’t the film I wanted, it wouldn’t have the Rodney King footage, it wouldn’t have Malcolm’s statement in his speech about not being anti-Semitic, and the American flag would not catch fire.”

Lee’s constant refrain that he made ”no compromises” on the film is itself part of the hype. In fact, the tight budget did force some painful corner-cutting. ”The studio pretty much ghettoized the movie from the beginning,” complains Lee’s longtime cinematographer, Ernest Dickerson. ”We’ve ended up with a low-budget epic.” Yet the fact that Lee was able to make a film that even remotely matched his vision is a testament to the effectiveness of his take-no-prisoners tactics. In the end, he won almost every battle. If he did it in a way that alienated much of Hollywood — and much of the general public — that was simply the price he had to pay. ”He wants to be confrontational toward whites,” says one studio executive. ”He believes that if he is not attacked by the white media he will lose his legitimacy with his black base.”

And that’s the paradox of Spike Lee: The qualities so many people find irritating — the strident egotism, the racial posturing, the grandstanding — are the very attributes he needed to make Malcolm X a grand epic. Says one source close to the movie, ”I’ve never seen a director get away with this much in my life.”

”Spike Lee likes to get his way,” says Malcolm X producer Marvin Worth. ”It’s like a politician running for President. If you become a director, it’s because you want to play God.”

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