Like a chess prodigy, Spike Lee is as brash and brilliant as he is cool and calculating. And with Malcolm X, Lee, at 35, attained grand-master status. He has always played the Hollywood game amazingly well, but never have his moves been so smooth, so bold, so defiantly self-assured. In 1992 he proved himself mature enough to swing a deal that stymied moguls for a quarter century. (And who else would have thought to make Malcolm funny?)
Lee skillfully trimmed the most bizarre stuff in Malcolm X’s autobiography (like his later-recanted belief that a mad scientist created whites out of black genetic stock) and slightly altered events, increasing dramatic impact without mistreating history. He made X the uncompromised epic he set out to make, at 3 hours, 21 minutes instead of the 2 hours, 15 minutes that the Warner studio initially had wanted — and that the Completion Bond Co., which briefly took over the movie, had demanded. The attention X has gotten testifies to the scope of Lee’s subject; our tragic national patterns of black and white are the chessboard on which he works his wizardry. (The Nation said that kids who skip school to see X — as Lee urged blacks to do — will probably learn more that way.)
Lee opened the Malcolm X game with a shrewd maneuver, knave to political pawn: By dogmatically proclaiming, ”Only a black can do this film,” he managed to get the project’s original director, Norman Jewison, blown right off the board.
”It was make-or-break on this one,” says Lee. ”I talked a lot of trash, and I had to come through.” Sometimes, he has talked garbage: He once called white women who date black men ”ugly, mugly dogs”; when he got an Oscar nomination for writing Do the Right Thing but was snubbed for direction, he blamed racism. But his X outrages (calling Warner ”the plantation”) were tactical, and at every slippery step he stayed unshaken, a few moves ahead of the movers and shakers.
By well-timed cries of ”racist!” Lee got X‘s incendiary passages past nervous studio execs, who gave him a budget of $28 million. When the studio refused to ante up more, Lee loudly publicized contributions from entertainment plutocrats like Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey. The hype embarrassed Warner Bros., and the budget swelled to $35 million. ”They got a bargain!” Lee gloats. ”It had to be on the scale of Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai.” With $32.6 million worth of tickets sold in the first three weeks of release, X seems destined to win a place in the prestige-picture pantheon.
X is more than a validation of Lee’s instincts: As he puts it, ”It is, like, a cultural event.” And Spike Lee is much more than a deal maker. Like Malcolm, he knows that Americans need to see great ideas wrapped in great personalities. He has made his movies by making himself into such a symbol. By giving Malcolm a saintly nimbus to match Martin Luther King’s, Lee reignited himself with reflected glory. ”This film made me stronger,” he says. ”We went through the fire on this one.” In 1969, the late James Baldwin wrote the first draft of what eventually became Malcolm X. Somewhere, he’s smiling and saying, ”Just wait till the fire next time.”