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Spike Lee on “Malcolm X” & How Hollywood Almost Prevented Landmark Film from Being Made

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May 19 marked what would have been the 98th birthday of Malcolm X. The director Spike Lee gave the keynote address at an event marking the day at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center, which is housed in the former Audubon Ballroom in New York where Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. Lee discussed the challenges of making his acclaimed 1992 biopic of Malcolm starring Denzel Washington, and how he overcame funding shortfalls and studio indifference to get the film made. “We knew that we had to keep going,” Lee said.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee gave the keynote address. He talked about the making of his 1992 film, more than 30 years ago, Malcolm X, as well as his family and the power of education. Just days after this event, Spike Lee’s father, the bassist and composer Bill Lee, died at the age of 94 at his home in Brooklyn. Bill Lee had a prolific musical career, performing with legendary artists including Harry Belafonte, Aretha Franklin, Odetta, John Lee Hooker and Bob Dylan. He also wrote the scores to many of his son Spike Lee’s films, including Do the Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues. This is Spike Lee speaking last Friday.

SPIKE LEE: I’m not a keynote speaker. Come to say what I’ve got to say, and that’ll be it.

The most important book I ever read was The Autobiography of Malcolm X, seventh grade, Rothschild Junior High School in the People’s Republic of Brooklyn, New York. Is Brooklyn in the house?

AUDIENCE: [cheering]

SPIKE LEE: All right. Is Harlem?

AUDIENCE: [cheering]

SPIKE LEE: All right. That’s it. That’s it. We’re not doing — that’s it. You know what, though? Can we have a moment of silence for Mr. Harry Belafonte? And Mr. Jim Brown, who passed today, too? Some of you might not have heard that. Jim Brown passed away today. Freedom fighters. That’s what they are. And they’ll be looking down on us, what we’re doing.

When I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X in seventh grade, I wrote a paper on it. I got a C. You got to read that book more than once. And my mind was developed to the — what Brother Malcolm was putting down.

But I come from a long line of educators and “edumacated” Black folks. My father, Bill Lee, jazz bassist, who’s done a lot of the scores for my films, was a freshman at Morehouse when Dr. Martin Luther King was a senior. My classmate, the glocious class of Morehouse ’79, is Martin Luther King III. My father went to Morehouse, my grandfather went to Morehouse, and my mother and grandmother went to Spelman. So, we have to understand we have a long line of educated Black folks.

As you said, Sister, it was against the law for us to read and write. And, you know, the day we had off, on Sundays, that’s what we’d do, you know, reading the Bible. But if master caught you, you’d get whipped. And if we had a bad day, you’d be castrated and hung. Our ancestors risked their life because they understood that education was going to be the key. Our ancestors risked their life to be educated. We cannot let that go.

So, I’m just going to — I’m going to go to the film. The making of that film was the hardest thing I ever had to do. And the great Marvin Worth bought the rights from Dr. Betty Shabazz, way back. Way back. And for 20-something years, he tried to get it made — several directors, several — several actors. And finally, Norman Jewison was the director, with Denzel. And when I heard that Norman Jewison was directing this, I said, “Hell to the nah!” But here’s the thing, though. I respect Norman Jewison, because it was his job; he gracefully bowed out. He didn’t have to do that. And so, once we got that, I knew we had to do the film.

But from the very beginning, we didn’t have enough money. We didn’t have enough money. I put half my salary into the film. Warner Bros. knew it. We all knew it. But we’re just gonna go. I mean, this whole thing is — and, you know, in the studio system, you got to get them impregnated. So we knew one day the money would run out.

And Warner Bros. did not want the length of that film to be three hours. We knew — it was not about ego. To tell the many different lives that Malcolm led, we needed that time. We needed that time. And we went out — it’s crazy. We showed the four-hour version to Warner Bros. Four hours. We knew we’d cut it down, but… It was the day of the Rodney King verdict. So, we’re screening a film for Warner Bros. executives, the two presidents, and the secretaries are coming in and out, because L.A. is burning. But to their credit, they stayed throughout the whole four hours.

And so, it was a long discussion, because they had to — we had — I think a helicopter came to Warner Bros.’ lot and took them to where they had to go. And they said, “How long the film might be?” I said, “I need as long as” — I said, “How long is JFK?” Because JFK was coming out. And they said, ”JFK is two hours.” They didn’t know I know Oliver Stone. I call Oliver. I goes, “Oliver, how long is JFK?” He says, “Spike, it’s three hours, but don’t tell them I told you so.”

So we knew that we had to keep going. We did not cut the film, the length. And Warner Bros. let the bond company take over the film. All the people in postproduction got registered letters saying, “You’re fired.” As I said before, I already put half my salary already into the film. So it was the lowest point in my life, with the exception of my mother dying.

And Malcolm came to me: self-determination, self-reliance. I kept thinking about that again and again and again. What does that mean?

And then it hit me like a ton of bricks: I know some Black folks that got some money. So, this was the plan. Not did I only know them, but I had their phone number. So I made a list. And here’s the key thing. This was not — it was not — they couldn’t get any money back. It wasn’t a tax write-off. This had to be like, “Here, take it. Take it.”

And the first person I called was Bill Cosby. Called him up, said, “Bill” — first thing I said was, “How’s Camille?” Then I told him what it was about. He said, “Spike, I’ll put the check in the mail.” I said, “Nah.” I knew he lived in a townhouse, Upper East Side. Knocked on the door. Didn’t even come in. Snatched that check, ran to the bank before he could change his mind.

So I made a list. And I always get the order mixed up. A great woman, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, she wrote a check. Tracy Chapman. Janet Jackson. Prince. And then there were two left. So, here’s the other thing, though, is that every time they said yes, I was asking for more money, ’cause I was feeling it.

So, I had two people on my list. Called up Magic. Boom. And then the last call, the GOAT, who was born in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, not North Carolina: Michael Jordan, born in Cumberland Hospital on Myrtle Avenue, same hospital where Mike Tyson and Bernard King were born in, Bernard and Albert King were born. So, I mean, one thing about Michael, he don’t like to lose nothing. Very competitive. So I just let it slip how much Magic gave. Oh, oh, oh, Ms. Oprah Winfrey — sorry, sorry. She’s in there. I told you I get the — so I let Michael — I said, “Magic gave…” He said, “Magic gave what?” Boom!

So now we had the money, and I had the money to rehire the crew. And at this time, there was no talking between myself and Warner Bros., because Warner Bros. gave the film to the bond company. So, on this date, on Malcolm’s birthday, we had a press conference at the Schomburg Collection, Schomburg Library, 135th and Lenox. And we announced that these prominent African Americans wrote these checks. And the next day, Warner Bros. financed the rest of the movie. True story.

And the movie is because of Denzel Washington. Denzel had done an off-Broadway play, When the Chickens Come Home to Roost, many years. And there were many times when he was on camera that our skin was crawling because we saw Malcolm. It was eerie. It was eerie.

And there’s one scene — all the speeches were Malcolm’s speeches. And there’s one scene where you see Al Freeman Jr. as Honorable Elijah Muhammad behind him. And so, we’re looking at this — Denzel is talking. I’m next to my great cameraman, Ernest Dickerson. And we’re shooting film. So, there’s only 10 minutes in a roll of film. We were shooting 35 millimeter. So, Denzel is going. I’m turning a page. He’s killing it, killing it, killing it. And Ernest is telling me, “Spike, we’re about to roll out.” And then I see that — I’m reading the script, and this is where the scene is supposed to end, and he keeps going. And the stuff — we were all mesmerized. And finally, Ernest said, “We rolled out.” So I went over to Denzel, and his eyes were glazed over. His eyes were glazed over. Anybody who was there, we saw the spirit of Malcolm. The spirit of Malcolm came over Denzel.

But here’s the thing, though. Denzel, he started working on that role a year before we even began to shoot. Stopped drinking. No more swine. No pork was on his fork. We’re not talking about Shorty now. But learned how to pray, read the Qur’an. He devoted his life to that role. So, I’m not going to name no names. For a lot of these biographical films, you could put the makeup on and the hair, but that stuff is superficial. That performance happened because he put the work in. Denzel put the work in. And as Ilyasah said, it doesn’t seem like 30 years, but that performance gets better every year. And it was a great travesty that Denzel did not win the Academy Award for that role.

But let me break it down to you. In basketball, there’s a thing called the makeup call. Everybody know what that is? When a referee sees a call, they don’t call it, and then, the next time, boom. One of the greatest actors ever, Al Pacino — give it up for Al Pacino — he knew. He got nominated but did not win for Godfather, Godfather II, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon. Al Pacino ain’t no — he’s from the Bronx, too. Al Pacino is a… So, he didn’t win all those times. Denzel’s young. He’ll be back. He gets it. Denzel comes around again, Training Day, boom. But we can only — we can’t — here’s the thing as an artist. You cannot allow other people to determine — you know what I’m talking about, Sister. You know what I’m talking about. We can’t let other artists determine what our worth is.

So, in closing, I’m honored to be here. And we all love — oh, last thing. This is for you, my sister, Ms. Shabazz. You.


SPIKE LEE: Listen. Uh-oh. What does that mean? You took your glasses off.

ILYASAH SHABAZZ: No, I just put them on.


ILYASAH SHABAZZ: I just put them on so I can see.

SPIKE LEE: OK. It’s about your mother. During the preproduction of this film, I had several conversations with your mother. And she’s responsible for the best — the best — one of the best scenes in the film.

Ernest Dickerson, great cameraman, Ernest and I — he went to Howard, HU, you know. We came into NYU film school together. He went to Howard. I went to Morehouse. Boom. Ernest shot all my films at NYU, She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better, Jungle Fever, then Malcolm X. And we’s doing this thing called the double dolly shot, where it looks like someone’s floating. And so, before we did Malcolm X, Ernest and I said, “We have to — we just can’t be using that stuff to show off. We’ve been out of film school many years. We have to have a reason to use that shot.”

And Dr. Betty Shabazz told me that she felt her husband knew he was going to be assassinated right here. She told me that. And when Dr. Betty Shabazz told me that, that’s when I knew: That’s where the double dolly shot had to be. You know the scene. Sam Cooke. What’s he singing? “A Change Is Gonna Come.” That’s how that scene came to be. Dr. Betty Shabazz, thank you. Good night.

AMY GOODMAN: The Oscar-winning filmmaker Spike Lee, speaking last Friday at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center, housed in the former Audubon Ballroom in New York, where Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. Spike Lee was speaking on what would have been the 98th birthday of Malcolm X.

We come back, Memorial Day Massacre: Workers Die, Film Buried. We look at the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke, here on Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

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