Penthouse Retrospective

by Marcia Pally Originally Published: December, 1992

Spike Lee | A Fifth Thursday BONUS

An interview with the most controversial director in America about his most controversial film to date: Malcom X.

Penthouse Magazine - December, 1992When Spike Lee released Do the Right Thing in 1989, Universal Pictures and much of the press believed that it would spark a race riot. Do the Right Thing did not trigger unrest. Two years later, press and public feared that John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood would start racial trouble. Boyz did not cause rioting. (A few L.A. gang members were denied entry to the film when they roughed each other up after a theater oversold the house. They had not even seen the movie.) Some weeks later, press and public believed Mario Van Peebles’s New Jack City would provoke black unrest, which it did not do. This month Spike Lee releases his film biography of Malcolm X, the man touted for 35 years as the instigator of violent racial revolution, which has not erupted.

While Malcolm X was in postproduction, an all-white jury acquitted five white policemen of the 56-blow beating of a black man named Rodney King, to whom the officers wished to give a speeding ticket. The press and public had not worried that acquittal would spark a race riot. Again they were wrong. Malcolm X follows the black leader from his pimping and thieving days in Boston and New York through his Muslims and his founding, years later, of the nonsectarian Organization of AfroAmerican Unity, dedicated to the potential of mutual respect between blacks and whites. Tensions and jealousies among the Black Muslims led to Malcolm’s dismissal and finally to his murder in 1965 at the age of 39 by, as Lee wrote, “those he sought to reclaim.”

Lee finished his film, based on Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, amid a few well publicized struggles. When Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, A Soldier’s Story) was slated to direct, Lee and other African-Americans protested that the biopic should be made by an African American director. Denzel Washington (Cry Freedom, Glory, A Soldier’s Story) was signed on for the role of Malcolm, and the directing slot was handed to Lee, who went over budget. With costs in the $40 million range (rather than the $28 million limit set by Warner Bros.), Lee contributed two million of his three-million-dollar salary to the project, and a group of prominent blacks-including Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, and Magic Johnson-raised the rest to return Malcolm X to Lee’s hands.

Born in Atlanta in 1958, Spike Lee’s first feature, She’s Gotta Have It (at a budget of $175,000), earned him tile Prix de Jenuese Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Do the Right Thing won an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and received the Best Director Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. In addition to his films, Lee is known for the music videos of such artists as Miles Davis, Tracy Chapman, Branford Marsalis, and Public Enemy, for his TV commercials, and for his five books on the making of his films.

Do the Right Thing ends with quotes from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, suggesting two possible films for you to make.

There were never two alternatives. Malcolm’s is the more interesting life to me, the more interesting beliefs — not that there shouldn’t be a film on Dr. King. I talked to a lot of people who knew Malcolm…

How did you find them?

They came to me.

Did you make Malcolm X to reintroduce him as a hero to young people?

That’s one reason. But many black kids know about Malcolm through rap music. Maybe this film will be the book they haven’t read yet, because most people don’t read today. That’s got to change. Many people will read the [Alex Haley] autobiography after seeing the film.

Were you finally satisfied with the financing of the film?

No. But I’m not impossible to satisfy, I’ve been satisfied before. I’ve never gone over budget in the past, as I did now. The cost came close to $40 million. Dan Aykroyd got $45 million to do Nothing But Trouble, and he’d never directed a movie before. Malcolm X is an epic. It covers four decades, has a 190- page script, and will be close to three hours and 20 minutes long. You can’t just shoot it in a couple of blocks of Harlem. We went to Egypt, Africa, and sent a second unit of Muslim filmmakers to Mecca.

You weren’t allowed into Mecca?

I’m not Muslim.

Are you religious?

Not really. I was brought up Baptist. I don’t grasp organized religion but I believe in a higher being.

In the past you’ve spoken highly of Norman Jewison’s work. Do you still admire him?

I do. My objection to his doing Malcolm X has nothing to do with admiring his other films, it’s that a white director couldn’t do this one. It would’ve been fucked up and there would’ve been an outcry from the black community that no PR campaign could manage.

One thing about Spike Lee, he never makes movies that have no opinion or melt away into cultural fodder. Penthouse always appreciates that, which makes us always look forward to the next one.

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