On the Set, the Street, and at Dinner with ‘Malcolm X’ director Spike Lee

Picture This
On the set, the street, and at dinner with X director Spike Lee
November 10, 1992

At 6:58 on Tuesday, September 29, the Odeon, a Tribeca institution since 1980, played host to relatively few patrons. There was the sudden cold spell to consider. There was Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Grill to consider, too. The modicum of quiet blanketing the restaurant like so many snowy white tablecloths was not unusual. Still reeling from the blissful consumerism of the ’80s, art world people, film people, writers — in the main, the Odeon’s star clientele — dined late and sparingly on mashed potatoes, spinach, and martinis.

A busboy flicked a napkin in the direction of one or two flies. At table number 25, Sylvester “Spike” Lee, filmmaker, sat alone, making notes in his agenda at the time of the first public (but very private) screening of his long-awaited epic, X, a film that, having been nearly 10 months in the making, and with a $33 million budget, has generated more advance publicity, criticism, and debate than any “bio-pic of a slain leader” (as Variety termed it) since Conspiracy became a movie nexus.

The avalanche of press — “Spike Lee Hates Your Cracker Ass” (Esquire), “Do the Wrong Thing” (New York Post), “Spike’s Pique” (Vanity Fair), “Spike Lee’s X Factor” (L.A. Style), “We were gonna call [my book] X…but I realized…it might look like I was copying Spike” (Madonna) — didn’t affect the bored insouciance of the Odeon’s maître d’ leaning at her station, or Lee himself, who, from the distance of the street where I stood looking as I fumbled with the overcoat of the Observer, seemed small and separate from the near meta controversy that’s sprung up around his film, a film Lee has described as “a spiritual journey… three hours and 21 minutes [the opening of which] should be considered a holiday for black people and their families.”

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That Lee’s statement did not insist on Malcolm X’s birthday as the appropriate day for national celebration was an indication of just how much X might become intertwined with its creator’s image — the black Woody Allen, a camera-wielding Sharpton, a gifted charlatan, an inspiration, a generous sort, a media hound (or barker). So much so, in fact, that Malcolm X — “Our shining black manhood” (Ozzie Davis), “A father, my brother” (James Baldwin) — might pall in comparison. Under the media’s remitting X watch, Malcolm has become a cardboard icon of sorts. Very little reference has been made in the press to what it is he actually did, believed, or said, besides what Lee has appropriated as a moniker for his company, 40 Acres and a Mule: By Any Means Necessary.

Nor does Malcolm seem as vocal as his filmographer.

“The media has tried to poison me. That woman from Esquire who did that piece,” Lee says, referring to Barbara Gruzzuti Harrison’s smarmy, I’m adorable and who’s Spike Lee? brand of old New Journalism. “She spent three days with me trying to prove how liberal she was. That’s all she wrote. She kept telling me how liberal her upbringing had been, like I give a fuck. I called Esquire and told them I didn’t like it. I never said I hated anyone’s cracker ass. How many times do I have to say I didn’t say it!”

Lee’s locution, his “I was robbed!” and “White America is responsible for the racism in this country” speech, contradicts the need fans and critics have for him. And not just as a cultural necessity. In the last several years, as Lee has evolved, more and more, away from the loud ineptitude of his early Jerry Lewis–like screen persona — I’m skinny! I’m funny! I’m a geek! — and into the goatee-sporting, public image unlimited voice of black male rage, he has become something of a father figure.

Spike Lee and Denzel Washington in “Malcolm X”

We have watched Lee grow up with a certain misty nostalgia. His rise from street urchin to adult has been the story of boys we used to know who’ve left the neighborhood but haven’t left us. Perhaps reversing the “truth” in many black homes: that Dad doesn’t exist at all, that’s he’s a long way from home. Not anymore. There he is as Spike Lee, filling the void on TV, in the news, with unequivocal authority. The subject? That the black male is a great, untapped American subject. And regardless of what Lee says about it — sometimes trenchant, sometimes stupid — he says it like Dad would, sound mixed with fury. Whatever one may think of Lee, he owns his authority.

“Next year, after X, the belt is mine,” he’s said, throwing the gauntlet down at the feet or our Dionysian Mom, Madonna. It is Lee’s complaining the public minds; it is as disjunctive as anyone’s Dad crying over the milk he hasn’t spilled — yet.

Which raises the question: Can Lee get out of his own way well enough to be specific and distanced about Malcolm X’s tale of stoicism and petty bigotry, the personally transformative effect and power of prayer, the self-reflective gaze of the truly isolated, one who was reviled, believed, feared?

“Listen, he’s a genius,” one former Lee acolyte has said. “But at exactly what, I can’t tell you. As a producer, yes. Definitely. But I’m not sure if Malcolm can survive a Spike Lee movie, especially if Spike’s in it. He can’t not compete. What’s happening with all this X press is backfiring. It’s beginning to look like Costello working Abbott over for top billing.”

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Over X lines have been drawn, turning it less into a film than a condition of the community out of which it is born, a community that, notes theologist James Cone, has “three characteristics: the tension between life and death, identity crisis, and white social and political power.” This community has become part of the image world too. And it is a bumpy montage that includes Rodney King, the debacle in Crown Heights, white shoe polish being thrown on black schoolchildren in the Bronx, Anita Hill — the greatest story never told. It is a parade of images that calls out for one voice, one vision — that of the Great Black Father — who, upon removing his glasses and never donning cape fear, has power. And can put out a word. Loud but heard. Which speaks — hopefully — to and about history. George Jackson and Medgar Evers, Malcolm and Angela Davis, and children wearing X hats, staring at posters: By Any Means Necessary. It’s a dictum Lee has illustrated by having completed X. Sho’ Nuff. Can Ya Dig It?

And which Lee might become the victim of. Should X not fly as anything more than an interesting cultural moment, Lee could become just another Baldwin, especially after The Fire Next Time — Baldwin’s essay on the Nation of Islam and religious conversion — garnered all those magazine covers and lectures and interviews that eventually cowed him as an artist. The clamor that met the piece turned Baldwin into a Spokesman, a public Self who, like Richard Wright and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. before him, became committed to speaking out but could never return in, into that dark and private distanced place out of which one’s art grows, tangled and intense, but one’s own.

Where will X leave Lee who, in the not loving glare of publicity, already looks so different from the movie-loving boy he must have been, sitting alone now at table 25, making notes in his agenda on the person he has to be next week, and the week after?

Outside the Odeon, the traffic lights continued to change. The wind shifted. Pulling my coat even tighter, I entered.

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Lee is excellent at projecting a tone of voice that conveys mock umbrage and other aspects of Dad/boss man disapproval. “You’re late. (Pause.) Again,” he said, as I slid into his booth. To make up for my time-lagged butt — or sensibility — he motioned for a waiter.

In bad French-inflected English with a little early B-boy thrown in, Lee said, “Mon-signor, zee food please. Can we get some attention over here? I mean, like service,” and placed both our orders.

I asked if meeting at the Odeon had been convenient because he was putting the finishing touches on X at the Tribeca Film Center.

“Hell no,” he said with the abruptness he often uses to pull the verbal rug out from any interlocutor. Turning away from establishing even the most superficial intimacy is an aspect of Lee’s speech. Often, he prefers to project the arrogance of the shy, the physically small man, who bullies before being bullied. “I’m mixing the final sound at Magno, uptown. We haven’t finished the final images yet, but people have been coming by. De Niro, as a matter of fact.”


“And what?

“The reaction. To the film.”

Lee paused. He shifted in his seat. No reaction seemed forthcoming except another wave of his shyness, the artist’s reluctance to pass judgment — even if inferred — on himself. This time, and for more than a moment, his defensive tone could not shield his quietness as he said, “He liked it.”

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Then, “Scorsese came too.” Scorsese, in his collaborations with De Niro — especially Mean Streets, that ode to the dream and ultimate failure of re-creating some life with father — has had a seminal influence on Lee.

“I sat in back of him while he watched the movie. I could feel the way he watched it — this man who loves cinema the way I love sports. And I could feel what he thought. You know the way he takes a shot and puts it back together for you, so that the audience knows what’s going on? That’s the way he took my film apart.”

Dinner was served. Lee picked up his fork, and held it, on an angle, in his left hand. He attacked his food with great relish. He did not use a knife. Bits of perspiration collected on his sparse, dark mustache. He ate, by turns, his mashed potatoes from one plate and salmon from another, using long slow strokes. His thin shoulders and slight frame floated somewhere inside his oversized denim shirt, over which he wore a red tie with diamond patterns. Gone were the Malcolm X–style glasses seen in one or 10 or 50 photographs; they had been replaced by elegant black tortoise-shell frames, through which Lee’s gaze, his large and unblinking eyes, like Baldwin’s self-described “frog eyes,” were the most physically forceful aspect of his person. This gaze did not disturb the vulnerability one feels is wrapped around him clearly, like plastic. The signature diamond stud was in his left earlobe. His earlobe seemed to signify so much, so nearly naked and delicate, I had to think twice before deciding not to stroke it.

Lee, whose eyes miss nothing, said, in his best guerrilla filmmaking voice, “We had so much shit to get through to bring this off. We have to bring it off. There was the pressure of not messing Malcolm up. ‘Don’t mess Malcolm up,’ is what me and Denzel heard all the time. We had to respect Malcolm. And Dr. Betty Shabazz and Shorty, Malcolm’s real close friend from the Boston days, whom I play.

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“Then you had the people who thought I was trying to bumrush the show all the time. Like, when Norman Jewison was chosen as this film’s original director.” Lee smiled at the memory. “I said, ‘Hey Norman, you might have to give this one up.’ He very graciously bowed out when I had a talk with him to explain how maybe he wasn’t the best person qualified to do Malcolm.”

Before I could raise the question with Lee of whether or not he was qualified for the job, he silenced it with more speech, continuing his X travails narrative. This is a recognizable device used by artists to protect themselves against the public’s judgment on their work. The enormity of the judgment facing Lee accounts, in part, for the intensity of his criticism of the press — another power. As Lee talked, his eyes blinked slowly, more than before.

“People said, ‘Look at Spike trying to take credit for James Baldwin’s script,’ ” he continued. “The script was written 25 years ago when Marvin Worth, our producer, hired Baldwin to translate Malcolm’s book to the screen. I never didn’t want Baldwin to have credit, but his sister, Gloria, his executor, didn’t want to have anything to do with this project. Don’t ask me why.

“There have been a million scripts done. I mean, David Mamet did a script. He put Alex Haley, Malcolm’s coauthor on the Autobiography, in as a character in the film. We finally have a credit that reads: Arnold Perl and Spike Lee.”

Denzel Washington in “Malcolm X” David Lee/Warner Bros.

The making or not making of X has been chronicled for years, most notably by James Baldwin in his essay The Devil Finds Work. “At the top of 1968,” he writes, “I flew to Hollywood to write the screenplay for The Autobiography of Malcolm X.… I think that I would rather be horsewhipped, or incarcerated in the forthright bedlam of Bellevue, than repeat the adventure.”

Baldwin’s screenplay, published as One Day, When I Was Lost, is a masterpiece. Adapted for the screen in a series of flashbacks and other time jumbles, it is presented as cinema verité but very precisely structured. Although Baldwin originally intended to adapt the book for the stage as a collaboration between himself, Haley, and Elia Kazan, the play, like the film, was never produced. What did eventually make it to the boards, nearly 20 years later, was Anthony and Thulani Davis’s X, an opera that enjoyed a brief success d’estime. While noted for the subtlety of its language and harmonic structure, the opera was limited to just a few performances. At the time of its New York premiere — 1986 — there was no Big Moment to help sell it: no public bloodletting, no Rodney King, no X hats, no Spike Lee.

As Lee’s voice went on describing, with the chilly but fascinated detachment of the survivor of a bad dream, the film’s financial problems — its takeover, at one point, by the Completion Bond Company when X went over budget; the $3 million fee he reduced to $1 million to help keep the film afloat; his eventual call to a number of black entrepreneurs (Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Prince, Janet Jackson, Michael Jordan) for “a gift — not a loan, not an investment” to retain his right to final cut; his commitment to “never financing a film like this again. If anyone asks me to, they can kiss my black ass two times” — I wondered what the aesthetic demands of the film might have been. I wondered about Lee’s handling of his actors. I commented on having seen Cynda Williams in Carl Franklin’s One False Move and how, well, different she seemed in Mo’ Better Blues.

“That girl just walked in off the street!” he said, folding in on himself in the booth. It occurred to me then that Lee’s vulnerability, the turning away of a shoulder, a sidelong glance, a bark, may account for his more preposterous public statements. Rather than appear in the least vulnerable and therefore open to criticism, he had decided to appear as invulnerable as possible, the angry laughing figure beyond reproach, beyond comment.…

I had heard a great deal about Malcolm…and I was a little afraid of him.… I saw Malcolm before I met him. I had just returned from someplace…I was giving a lecture somewhere in New York, and Malcolm was sitting in the first or second row of the hall, bending forward at such an angle that his long arms nearly caressed the ankles of his long legs, staring up at me. I very nearly panicked.… I stumbled through my lecture, with Malcolm never taking his eyes from my face.  — James Baldwin

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Looking into Lee’s face for some further point of connection between Baldwin’s image of Malcolm and the reel-upon-reel image of Malcolm created by Denzel Washington, I asked Lee about directing him.

“We got to know each other better on this project,” he said. “And Denzel had played Malcolm before, in When the Chickens Come Home To Roost, a play — I never saw it.

“It was amazing for me to watch his absolute dedication, especially during Malcolm’s religious conversion. I watched him humble himself, kneel and atone, just like Malcolm did. We knew our careers were not just at stake on this one, but our lives.”

“Is this going to lead to another collaboration? Like Scorsese’s with De Niro?”

Spike (with a smile): “This is only our second film together. But wouldn’t that be nice?”

For those with no vested interest in its process, movie making is a tedious undertaking. On a set, the eye is inclined to drift. Before a director yells “Print!” and the crew applauds at a scene’s completion, time yawns. Very little happens as everything happens. Everyone wonders what the dailies will look like. No one knows how the scene will look. Everyone has an idea, though. The hyperreality involved in being what one is on a movie set — actor, sound engineer, reporter — elicits a certain self-conferred authority but not the authority: the director’s.

On X’s set, it was interesting to watch Spike Lee. This for a number of reasons, the primary one being the freedom inherent in his pivotal role as Authority. He never seemed to doubt this authority, nor did he seem especially aware of its effect in relation to the rest of the crew who were generally watching themselves watch him, as if for a cue.

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On certain days, Lee’s marcelled hair stuck out from beneath his X cap (“I had it conked to play Shorty”). On other days, his turned-in feet and loping stride carried him to this place: To his cinematographer, Ernest Dickerson’s side. Sometimes Spike Lee smiled. More often, though, he didn’t. More often, as Dickerson or someone else talked, Lee would listen, offering no more than an inscrutable nod. It became clear, as Lee did these things, that one of his principle responsibilities — aside from directing, running interference with producers, fielding questions from actors, being sure script rewrites were in place for the next day’s shoot, and interviewing caterers — was to appear as if none of this was of particular concern. On Lee’s face, it was not clear whether any of this was cause for stress. Mostly, he maintained a relatively impassive veneer. Sometimes members of the crew imitated this stance, especially when approached by members of the press. When crew members approached Lee, this stance was dropped. Lee preferred his face to be in repose.

These were the things I saw on my first visit to the X set, late on December 4, 1991, a bone-chillingly cold evening.

It had taken some months of negotiation to arrange that visit. Lee was not directly involved in this. My request was fielded by the publicist hired expressly for part of the shoot (“Spike wants to know what kind of story you’re planning to do. Is it major or can we back burner this?”) and Lee’s assistant Desirée, a pleasant young woman. “You want to see a script?” she asked, with a giggle, in response to my request. “I don’t think so, but I’ll ask him.”

I did not receive a script. I did, however, receive the call sheet for December 4, which read, in part, like this:

DAY: 58 OUT OF 75

This was rather a lot of shots for one day, amounting to a 13- to 24-hour work day, costume changes, and a considerable amount of tension.

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“Yes, yes,” said the unit publicist emphatically, crankily, into her walkie-talkie as she stood outside the Museum of Natural History’s basement entrance. “Jesus,” she said as I approached her, having first walked past the Winnebagos lining Central Park West, directly in front of the museum. In the cold dark the white trucks with white lights in them looked like white, frozen, prehistoric things, guarded by young men in dirty brown parkas, a nose ring or two and big Negro hair.

“They’re shooting the scene in which Malcolm begins courting Betty Shabazz,” said the unit publicist, leading me indoors, past the museum’s great hall, past the aimless techies and gofers — primarily black — circling the floor or sometimes sitting dazed and huddled on it, X hats discarded here and there, X jackets used as pillows for those who had been felled by the re-creation of history, or making of it.

“Here we are,” she said. “Here we are, getting back to the two of them the way they were, authentic. This is part of where it happened.”

The room in which the scene was to be filmed was replete with large, glassed-in environments featuring stuffed bears, a boar in the woods, struck dumb in perpetuity. The set was not “dressed.” It was, however, stiflingly hot and weighed down by a large crane, a 35mm camera, now big and dumb with nothing to show for itself. A video monitor off to one side flickered blue and then white, a further refracting of reality in the playing of scenes as they maybe didn’t happen. Nothing appeared on the monitor for some time. Nothing happened. Extras drifted around the space in early ’60s summer clothing, in Stay-Press suits and black hats with small brims — brims too small for most of the men’s heads. The women, some of whose hair was not processed but covered in ill-conceived or ill-fitting wigs, studied their nails or the boar. Their hats on top of wigs were of no period I can recall.

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Principal actors were being called to their places. Denzel Washington, with reddish brown hair, cut short, combed back, Malcolm glasses in place, entered followed by one or two or three men, each of whom held these things: a bottle of water, a down parka, and a script. Dressed in a black suit and white shirt with black tie, he appeared trim and grim as he stood on his mark, making round O shapes with his mouth, intended, I assumed, to talk and talk.

Ernest Dickerson stood huddled near the video monitor, the blue images flickering in his face like the electronic light from an electronic fireplace, waiting for something to appear. Something did as an assistant yelled “Picture!” and Lee assumed his customary pose — arms draped across his chest, right hand cupping his chin — as the crane snaked down and nearly onto Denzel and Angela Bassett as Betty Shabazz, who took her place moments before. Bassett seemed amused watching herself play Betty Shabazz, nodding and smiling and nodding again as Denzel-as-Malcolm talked on and on. His body language conveyed, by turns, and in subtle ways — a flick of the tongue, a sidelong glance — an innocence, an awkwardness, that reminded one of Spike Lee at social gatherings.

Shot, from my medium distance: The video monitor showing Denzel-as-Malcolm motioning toward the white bear, his arms then crossed over his chest, his right hand cupping his chin. Bassett on video monitor: amused. Denzel: solemn. Cut. No take. Lighting not quite right. Lee confers with Dickerson. Some standing around. Extras bored. Two make-up people come up to Washington and Bassett and dab at their faces. Angela looks up as her cheeks are patted. Angela smiles. Denzel laughs at her smiling.

Angela Bassett and Denzel Washington in “Malcolm X” David Lee/Warner Bros.

It was interesting to watch Lee — attired, besides X cap, in jeans and X T-shirt (which he sold on the set at somewhat of a reduction) — grapple with this bit of technical problem solving. There was his impassive stare again, the calm of a Yogi whose enlightened space was a movie set. One or two or three minutes pass before another A.D. yells “Quiet!” and another yells “Sound!” and someone else says “Picture!” Everyone began again, as if nothing had stopped and everything had to be started.

The scene, which was about three minutes in length, took about three hours to record. After its completion, a source close to the production told me in the men’s room, during the set-up of another scene, that the contretemps between Lee and Dickerson had reached epic proportions. They have remained polite, though, says the source, committed, as they are, to the project, although it is known that Dickerson is exhausted by his work on Juice, his first feature, which he’s in post-production with. Lee, the source then says, wiping his hands, is nervous for and about Dickerson, the future of their collaboration, wondering if Juice or X will survive their anxiety about their separate projects.

The source, a young man, whispers all this to me in the most hushed, most anxious of tones, gripped, as he is, by the pervasive HUAC paranoia that keeps most movie sets shut solid, but also because he’s alarmed by what he hasn’t said: The fact that Lee does not demand more of him and seems to rely invariably on just two or three people — Monty Ross, Denzel Washington, and Ernest Dickerson. It was clear, then, that Lee’s offhanded stance left little room for discussion. The thing I heard Lee demand most on the set was quiet. He creates a space by not speaking and in which everyone — A.D.s, actors, caterers — is committed because what Lee wants remains oddly unspoken.

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On whatever location I happened to visit, it was not unusual to see one or four of his or someone else’s personal assistants circle him on sneakered feet, faces imploring to be told what to do. Which Lee would eventually do, slowly, softly, and with a directness that implied that while this idea might work he would have another, in no time, and another and another. Generally Lee’s stance suggested that the success or failure of someone’s ability to execute their task was the success or failure of the project as a whole.

Of course, there were those who reacted to Lee with some bitterness, and expelled this bitterness in a covert remark or two, fearful of identification. It became clear that what Lee dealt with, almost continually, were relationships that had to be negotiated again and again in order to see the image of what he wanted to see, in the picture.

Like in the interior of a hotel a few, still bone-chilling nights later. The meeting hall of the hotel is flanked by a dais, behind which Malcolm sits with some of his staff, to announce, at a press conference, his departure from the Nation of Islam. It was a heartbreaking scene, played with great restraint by Washington as he considers, publicly, and for the first time, why he is leaving home (the Nation) and Father (The Honorable Elijah Muhammad). The scene is written this way:

Pg. 162 Revised 11/16/91.
181. INT. JFK AIRPORT — DAY. A large PRESS CONFERENCE: mikes of every network, every newspaper and wire service presence. Malcolm sports a beard.

As played by Denzel, the words, the camera snaking in a great low arch before him, were choreographed to great effect, were mesmerizing: as the camera moved to the left, Washington’s head would turn right, his eyes taking in the extras playing reporters, the reporters playing themselves, David Lee, the unit photographer, clicking away, the publicist holding her cup of coffee, and Lee himself, grinning — or the hours this moment took to capture, as Washington took us all in, made his leave-taking a part of our responsibility. When Lee yelled “Picture!” and everyone applauded, an extra turned to me and said, “Wonderful. But why does everything have to be so fucking perfect?”

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The secrecy surrounding X was part of the project’s aura, so much more interesting than the Controversy. In Lee’s not too distant past, so much of this Controversy would have worked to his and the film’s advantage. Regardless of what the critics would have said in the halcyon past, the public knew who he was and was charmed and sufficiently provoked by the creation of Spike the Icon, the only (publicly) certifiable Negro star who was not a basketball player or a rapper, to see whatever movie he was touting.

Not so with Malcolm. X was different. Malcolm X was not an invented subject. Malcolm did not belong to Spike but to history, which always makes an audience approach such a project — a filmography — with some derision. The conjecture — was Lee making a film in the public’s best interests or would Malcolm become another fall guy to Lee’s ambition? — provoked, from one fan, this reaction to the proliferation of X hats and X tote bags: “Does Spike know that now a brother is selling X potato chips in Philly?”

Someone to whom I had applied for X information said, “No one will really talk to you about Spike. Why should they? Let’s face it, Spike is a power. And like most people in power, he has to protect himself. And if he has to protect himself by being vindictive, fine. And if you don’t like X, fine too. You have to know he’s tried to make it about Malcolm, but he couldn’t. That particular bit of subject matter is his biggest competition in the black attention market. Martin wouldn’t have meant the same thing. Black, revolutionary, intelligent — all the things Spike is or wants to be. He’s got the power. Now he has to figure out what to do with it. I mean, everyone wants a job in his business. He’s made black film an industry. He’s an entrepreneur, a brilliant producer, and a not even mediocre filmmaker. Even critically, you can’t touch him without looking like a fool, or a racist.

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Culture needs the “bad nigger” or two — Lee, Basquiat, Naomi Campbell, Malcolm X — but eventually punishes them. For being ornery, a loud mouth, a champion of “kissing my black ass two times” they receive headlines such as “Do the Wrong Thing,” which speak scornfully of the Negro who speaks. If not solely an artist, Dad, or “bad nigger,” what will Lee become to his public? X and the criticism it is bound to provoke will push past Lee’s familiar image. And Malcolm’s.

How has Malcolm changed in our collective imagination since he’s gone before the cameras? In the 26 books slated for release around the time of X’s opening (November 18), he is pictured as angry, unjoyous. He is, in his Denzel-as-Malcolm guise, pictured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine and in L.A. Style or whatever, no longer a challenge. The cult of personality — but dead. Is he a representative of all those mad, mad colored folk not burning the mother down — again?

Medium close-up: A young woman sitting by a pool in L.A. Flat, ugly light off the hills, which are burning. Nearly everyone connected with X has gone to Mecca. I had gone to L.A.

“He makes money,” said the young woman, her back arched. A yellow sheen is emitted from her Bodymap bathing suit. The young woman said, “I mean, he’s in your face with these themes and whatnot, but he makes money. I happen to have liked Do the Right Thing. It had that edge, that New York edge people out here just are not into, being idiots. I mean, writers are paid a million dollars for a script that’s eventually not going to be their vision. What the million dollars is for is to keep the writer quiet as your work goes to shit. What with producers and actors with more power than God meddling in everything, you have to take the money and run. Spike doesn’t do that. He’s anything but complacent about what he means to say. Personally, I hope he tears the roof off of this one.”

The young woman dipped her pink heel into the pool.

“God I hate this place,” she said.

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“The book that goes along with this project is called By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of Making Malcolm X While 10 Million Motherfuckers Are Fucking With You,” Spike Lee said, back at the Odeon. We laughed.

Our relative isolation created somewhat of the feeling that we were sealed off, alone, a feeling Lee, noticing everything and saying nothing, tried to decompress by asking about a film I had been rather closely associated with. Making a stern, protective, big brother gesture toward me — placing his right hand flat on the table with a thump — he gave me advice about the film community, which he has been cultivating for 13 years. I reacted to this advice as comfort. And since this comfort had taken so long to establish, I asked him about his. Where did he find it?

His mother, as I knew, had died relatively young, of cancer.

“My mother was responsible for my love of cinema,” he said. “She took me to see West Side StoryAn American in ParisCarmen Jones when I was a kid.”

“All of those films are about the hope of integration still existing in foreign, hostile environments,” I said.

“Yeah, I guess so. I didn’t know cinema was about making it back then. I didn’t know it was something anyone could do.”

Spike seemed enlivened by the memory, the internal picture of this: Spike in the dark, looking at the screen, unaware and then aware of its possibilities.

“For a long time, I didn’t know anyone did it, making pictures,” he said. He put on his X hat, his X jacket.

“Which way are you going?” I asked.

“Brooklyn!” With a feigned growl that put us both at ease, we were suddenly at the end, in close-up, nervous and expectant, as directed by Spike Lee.

He said: “Maybe I’ll go home and watch one of those movies.”

Equality From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Washington, D.C.

Black History Month: The Great Black Hope

Lorain, Ohio — The kind of hope Barack Obama promised to deliver was nowhere craved more deeply on Election Day than in this battered old manufacturing city on the shores of Lake Erie.

Hope got scores of local residents up before dawn to bounce over rutted streets that haven’t been repaved in decades. Hope had them standing all day outside of polling sites at schools forced to lay off 300 staff members last month for lack of funds. Hope sent them scurrying back and forth across town, picking up voters in need of a lift. It sent them past the mammoth, mile-long steel mills by the Black River, mills that once offered their own brand of hope, employing more than 13,000 workers at gritty but solid jobs with benefits and pensions. Barely a tenth that many jobs remain.

Hope got retired auto worker Joe Gonzalez, 59, over to his church, Sacred Heart Chapel on Pearl Avenue, before sunup to pilot a van to pick up stranded voters. Gonzalez put in 30 years at the vast Ford auto plant on Lake Road, alongside 15,000 other workers, turning out Falcons, Thunderbirds, and Econolines, often at a breakneck clip of more than 50 an hour. The speed didn’t help. The plant was shut in 2005, taking $2.2 million in city tax revenues with it, according to the local Morning Journal, which tabulates plant closings the way other dailies list obituaries.

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“I came out of the Army in 1967, went to apply at Ford on Wednesday, got called to work on Thursday,” Gonzalez said, sipping coffee under a basketball hoop in the church’s hall. “Once, they had so many workers at the plants that some people pitched tents because there wasn’t enough housing around.”

That’s no longer a problem. There are 1,000 foreclosures in the city of Lorain, officials say. Many of the homes belong to laid-off auto workers forced to walk away. The vacancies are a green light for scavengers, who rip out the copper piping, rendering the homes uninhabitable. Even some of the fancy new condos built along the river on the site where George Steinbrenner’s huge American Ship Building plant operated, until he closed it in 1983, have been seized by lenders.

Broadway, the city’s main strip, is neat and tidy, with stylish late-19th-century buildings. But it’s like a movie set. Most stores and offices are empty. There’s a lovely waterside park, built with federal funds, that’s dedicated to Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize–winning writer who was born here, and the Underground Railroad, which offered runaway slaves a last stop before freedom in Canada on the far side of the lake.

But the most riveting sight there is the open drawbridge over the mouth of the Black River, where Route 6 links the east side of town to the rest of Lorain. Built to let the huge freighters pass through on their way to deliver ore to the steel plants, it’s been stuck open since June. Its big arms stand 50 feet high in the air facing the Great Lake, as though the city were offering to surrender. State officials say that it’s a computer problem and they’re working on it. Still, it’s too late for the Dairy Queen on East Erie Avenue, a town favorite that closed last month after 33 years because customers couldn’t get there.

The way Gonzalez and several hundred other Lorain residents figured it, the 2008 election was their last best chance to respond to these insults, to register their voices with the political powers-that-be, and to keep their own hopes alive. They would do it by turning out as many voters as possible, a show of force to be ignored at any politician’s peril.

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Obama was the big draw at the top of the ticket — the former community organizer inspiring a new wave of organizing. But their own platform was strictly nonpartisan. They made their slogan, “Reclaim Lorain,” and issued a manifesto calling for neighborhood revitalization and anti-crime initiatives. Starting in 2006, they began the grunt work of rallying their neighbors. They put their slogan on lawn signs and on bright orange T-shirts that they wore as they tramped up and down the cracked sidewalks of the poorest city wards in the months leading up to Election Day.

Leading the effort is Laura Rios, a Lorain native and mother of three, who decided to start organizing when she was laid off after 15 years as a marketing director at a nearby manufacturing firm. “It gave me the first chance in a long time to take a look at what was happening in my community. I’d be driving around, and it was like, ‘Wow, when did that building get boarded up empty?’ “

Another nasty nudge came when drug dealers moved into a rented home next door. “I live in a quiet neighborhood. It was a real wake-up call about what was going on.”

Rios received training from the Industrial Areas Foundation, the Saul Alinsky–inspired advocacy group that helped create Brooklyn’s famed low-cost Nehemiah homes. IAF dispatched Jonathan Lange, a former textile workers organizer, from Baltimore. “We know that the most effective way to get people out to vote,” said Lange, “is face-to-face meetings with people like themselves, who love their town and also want change.”

Lorain’s population is about 70,000. Whites — a polyglot mix of ethnics drawn to the mills — are in the majority and hold most local offices. Blacks are 16 percent; Latinos, 21 percent. A fifth of the city’s residents fall below the poverty line. There’s a large Puerto Rican population, thanks to a recruiting drive that U.S. Steel conducted on the island in the 1950s. Both of Rios’s grandfathers came to Lorain that way: “They were looking for men who could work long hours in very hot conditions — like working in sugarcane fields, which is what my grandfathers did.”

At the group’s first meetings, Rios said, people talked about the good old days. “People had a nostalgic view of what Lorain used to be — that it had jobs, movie theaters, restaurants. People were going through a grieving process for their loss of that city, like mourning a lost loved one.”

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Christina Futchko, a Lorain native who taught public school for 13 years and helped organize Reclaim Lorain, remembers visiting her grandmother who worked on Broadway at Ted Jacobs, the town’s largest apparel shop. “It wasn’t Fifth Avenue, but you could buy a nice dress there. I couldn’t believe it when it closed.”

Gloria Nieto, a soft-spoken mother of five, got involved through her pastor at Sacred Heart, Father Bill Thaden, who urged parishioners to speak out about local conditions. “When I grew up, we had everything,” Nieto said, whose father and three brothers worked in the steel mills. “We never had to worry about crime. I just feel like, if we don’t fight back, this city is going to disappear.”

Obama came to Lorain in February during the Ohio primary to visit National Gypsum, a plant where Nieto’s husband worked hauling wallboard. “It was supposed to be just the media and the workers, but I wanted to go so badly and I got in,” she said. She listened as the ex-organizer preached about creating “green” jobs and ending tax breaks to corporations that shift work overseas. A few weeks after Obama’s visit, company officials closed the plant, laying off 58 workers.

Four years ago, on election night, I stood in the rain a few miles away in East Cleveland — another of Ohio’s poorest cities — watching a different group of church-based organizers work their hearts out to get voters to the polls. The rain fell in dismal buckets day and night, but people still turned out in droves in an overwhelmingly Democratic city with a history of underwhelming turnout. The grim weather matched the mood after early returns showed Bush winning Ohio and its critical electoral votes. The day was made brighter only by echoes of the cheers that were raised at the polls every time a young man in full hip-hop regalia showed up to cast his first proud vote.

Election Day 2008 saw Ohio bathed in warm sunshine. Reclaim Lorain dispatched some 100 local volunteers — along with three dozen energetic students from nearby Oberlin College — to its base of operations at Sacred Heart Chapel and to a dozen polling places around the city. Their marching orders, in addition to turning out the vote, were to assist those whose residence or identity was challenged. “We don’t want to see people forced to vote by provisional ballots,” Rios instructed her troops. “They usually don’t get counted until days after the election.”

Outside the polling place, at General Johnnie Wilson Middle School on the city’s west side, a first-time voter named Diraus Wagner Jr. asked for help after being told he wasn’t registered. A volunteer in an orange T-shirt called the church office, where someone typed Wagner’s name into a voter database. A van was dispatched to pick up Wagner and take him to the right polling place.

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“I just know the one thing I’m going to do today is vote,” Wagner insisted. “I’m out of a job, and even the temp agencies are cutting back on hours. I’m hoping a lot of people make the right decision today for a president who’s going to bring change.”

Beside him, Kenny Gordon, 59, a big man with a graying beard wearing a Cleveland Browns cap stood in the parking lot holding a large “Obama–Biden” sign. He said he’d been dispatched by his local chapter of the steelworkers’ union. “I’m in the mills 40 years. I swore I’d never be there as long as my father; he did 42. But I’m getting there.” After high school, Gordon worked for awhile at Steinbrenner’s shipyards before switching to steel. “Back then, you could quit one job and get another that afternoon. There were 7,500 men in my mill when I started. All the closings have taken their toll. Jesus, there are so many empty homes now. One day, I’m watching TV, and it shows these people down in Texas living under a bridge. I look, and it’s one of my old neighbors. I couldn’t believe it. He told me he was going to get a job down there in oil because he heard it was busy. He ends up living under a bridge.”

Gordon said he’d been following the presidential polls closely. “I think it’s Obama. I just feel good. McCain is just an extension of Bush. We can’t keep going that way. It has to change.”

Lorain voted better than 2 to 1 in 2004 for John Kerry. But many polling sites showed turnouts of 50 percent and less. Efforts by Obama’s campaign and Reclaim Lorain helped increase city registrations by 25 percent, officials said. Final tallies of early and absentee votes from this year’s election are still under way, but preliminary results show a sharp drop in Republican votes, with dramatic spikes in Democratic votes at the city’s poorer precincts. On Election Day, the big question was whether Lorain’s many white Democrats would cancel out that surge by refusing to back an African-American candidate.

There were many surprises. Richard Schuler, a 63-year-old white man who owns a paint-contracting business, talked nothing like McCain’s Joe the Plumber. “I am happy to see there’s an intelligent candidate stepping up to run,” he said after casting his ballot at St. Cyril & Methodius Church. “I like his speeches, like what he has to say, how he handles himself. I voted for Bush the first time, then changed my mind. I felt the country was headed in the wrong direction. Let’s just hope it can get turned around now.”

A few minutes later, a pair of young white men in work clothes emerged from the polling site and jumped into a mud-spattered Jeep Cherokee. “I did Obama,” said Jason Hilton, 25, a laborer. “I wasn’t even registered. Someone gave me a form at the racetrack, I filled it out, and here I am. Hell, I could’ve watched those debates till 2 a.m. Obama cleaned McCain’s clock every time.” His pal, Chris Hartman, 22, an auto mechanic, nodded. “If we had another 9/11, I think McCain would freak out — have a heart attack, drop dead — and then we’d have her for president.”

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On Lorain’s southeast side in front of Southview High School, a pair of middle-aged white men stood outside the polls talking about bowhunting season. One man, who gave his name only as Steve, wore tattered camouflage pants and a bandanna around his head. The other had on a rumpled gas-station attendant’s shirt bearing the name “Bill.” Both looked like sure bets to have one of those “NO-bama” stickers — sported on cars around the state — on their bumpers. Wrong again. “I thought about McCain for awhile,” said the man named Bill. “People said Obama was from the Middle East and has Arab blood. But I changed my mind. Obama’s more the right man.”

“I’ve got 14 guns, and if I thought he was going to take away one of them, I’d be against him,” said Steve, a construction worker. “But I sorted everything out. We’ve had eight years of getting porked by this Bush, and that’s enough. I want the guy who’s going to do right by working people.”

For that matter, not every minority voter matched the Obama profile. Luis Rosario, 34, wore gold studs in his ear and an African-style necklace to the polls. “We don’t need someone with no experience in the White House,” said Rosario, an ex-Marine who’s spent five years as a correctional officer at Lorain Correctional Institution, a state prison in nearby Grafton. “We don’t need Kuwait, places like that, trying to test us.”

It was a day that tested many stereotypes. One of the leaders of Reclaim Lorain is a middle-aged black woman from Louisiana named Jo Ann Charleston, who is pastor of a local house of worship called New Birth Church. On Election Day, Charleston worked as a roving troubleshooter at the polls, helping voters and volunteers alike figure out how to cope with poll judges intent on handing out provisional ballots at the first sign of trouble.

In between answering voters’ questions, Charleston filled in the rest of her remarkable résumé. If Lorain’s problems are mired in its rust-belt past, Charleston stands for its hopes for a different future. An engineer with double degrees in divinity and chemistry, Charleston has worked for NASA for 30 years, where she helped design a battery that the agency plans to use in the next moon launch. She’s received numerous awards for her work, including being named one of the agency’s top five women employees. These days, she heads NASA’s educational-outreach efforts, coaching high school students into becoming scientists: “We’ve got a shortage of students pursuing math and science,” she said. “There’s no reason we can’t turn out a new generation of scientists right here in Lorain.”

She turned to speak to an older white man wearing plaid pants — another likely McCain–Palin voter. He’d been told he was at the wrong polling site. Charleston made a call on her cell phone. “You’re in the right place, just the wrong precinct,” she told him, directing him to the proper table. “Everyone’s vote should count,” she said as he shuffled back into the polling site.

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Black History Month: Post-Soul Culture Circa 1992

When did it happen? Was it when “Richard Pryor’s blues-based life experience humor gave way to Eddie Murphy’s telegenic, pop-culture–oriented joking”? Or was it when “DJs began rocking Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans-Europe Express’ ”?

In the March 17, 1992, issue of the Voice, contributor Nelson George surveyed the “post-soul” landscape and discovered that, “as a musical genre, a definition of African American culture, and the code word for our national identity, soul has pretty much been dead since Nixon’s reelection in 1972. But what’s replaced it? Arguing in these pages in 1986, Greg Tate tried to establish a ‘new black aesthetic’ as a defining concept. He had a point, though I’d argue there was more than one aesthetic at work. For better and worse, the spawn of the postsoul era display multiple personalities.”

Indeed, over seventeen pages George explores a broad spectrum of post-soul black aesthetics, and the Voice’s art department helped with diptychs comparing and contrasting Malcolm X to KRS-One and Muhammad Ali and Bundini Brown to Chuck D and Flavor Flav, as well as triptychs of Lisa Bonet and Magic Johnson. The amped-up graphic treatment was necessary to keep pace with the sweep of George’s essay: “Which brings us back to our search for the source of this transition — for the single event that first engaged all these aesthetic, class, and economic issues. After considerable equivocation, I’ve decided that my starting point is a renegade work that, like many pivotal expressions throughout history, has only been encountered by a small percentage of the folks it affected.…When Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baaadassss Song came out in 1971, nothing like it had appeared on an American movie screen before. The depiction of a Watts-based male hustler’s act of rebellion against brutal police and subsequent flight to freedom ‘was an important moment in the evolution of black cinema which involved redefinition and initial statement of a willingness to act against one’s fate in America,’ according to veteran black filmmaker St. Clair Bourne.”

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George goes on to observe, “Sweetback’s ghettocentric style, outsider perspective, and financially independent spirit still reverberate in two crucial African American artistic movements — hip hop and black film. Sweetback defied the positive-image canon of Sidney Poitier, dealing openly with black sexuality, government-sanctioned brutality, and the arbitrary violence of inner city life. Its refusal to compromise still sparks black artists from Ice Cube to Matty Rich.”

After the essay comes a sumptuously illustrated fourteen-page “Time Line to Postsoul Black Culture” (1971–1991). Black History Month may be the shortest month of the year (landing there largely because it grew out of Negro History Week, which celebrated both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’s birthdays, on the 12th and 14th, respectively), but you could do worse than spend a big chunk of it revisiting the time line’s list of cultural highlights. Many, many celebs, politicians, actors, activists, athletes, and artists get shout-outs in the time line, including the gorgeous Pam Grier in 1973’s Coffy, the tenacious Shirley Chisholm in Congress, the atmospheric neorealism of Charles Burnett’s beautifully filmed Killer of Sheep, Grace Jones celebrating “the bisexual and campy black gay aesthetic” at Studio 54 in 1978, black quarterback Doug Williams leading the Washington Redskins to a triumph in the 1987 Super Bowl, and the 1989 debut of In Living Color on Fox. The time line also reminds us of less than positive events that occurred during those two decades, with this entry coming near the end: “Neocon Clarence Thomas, nominated to succeed civil rights warrior Thurgood Marshall, is confirmed as the second black to serve on the Supreme Court by the smallest margin in history after he’s almost derailed by law professor Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment. Never has America seen so many real-life Buppies on TV. Unfortunately, they’re all Republicans.”

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Take a ride back to the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly — and a whole lot more from back in the day that helps us understand where we are now. —The Voice Archives

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The Black Panthers: Pictures at a Revolution

Like many American icons — P.T. Barnum, Andy Warhol, Ronald Reagan — the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense got its start through a bit of flimflam. Huey Newton, an ex-con and self-taught radical intellectual, and Bobby Seale, foreman of an Oakland, California, anti-poverty youth program, founded the party in October 1966. The fledgling organization needed cash to build membership, and Newton hit upon the idea of selling copies of Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book at a San Francisco protest against the Vietnam War. By buying the books in wholesale lots from a Chinese bookstore, the budding revolutionaries realized a 400 percent profit. “That was our first fundraiser,” Seale said later. “We had not even read this book.”

College student Stephen Shames photographed Seale hawking the tiny volume — “Get your ‘Red Book’! One dollar! The thoughts of Chairman Mao Tse-tung!” — and the two have remained colleagues ever since, most recently collaborating on Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers, a fiftieth-anniversary collection of photographs, graphics, and reminiscences.

Seale (born 1936) and Newton (1942–89) used their big markup on the Communist bestseller to rent office space, install telephones, and buy shotguns, which they used to “police the police.” The Panthers’ initial program consisted of following members of the overwhelmingly white Oakland police force around predominantly black neighborhoods to guard against police brutality. As Newton told an interviewer in 1968, “In America, black people are treated very much like the Vietnamese people or any other colonized people because we’re used, we’re brutalized by the police in our community.”

Kathleen Cleaver (in dark jacket) at a “Free Huey” rally in DeFremery Park, Oakland, 1968; as she told an interviewer at the time, “All of us were born with our hair like this and we just wear it like this because it’s natural, because the reason for it you might say is like a new awareness among black people that their own natural appearance, physical appearance, is beautiful.” (More recently she added, “That clip has taken on a life of its own on the internet. I keep getting messages from kids: ‘I saw that. That’s so cool.’ ”)
Kathleen Cleaver (in dark jacket) at a “Free Huey” rally in DeFremery Park, Oakland, 1968; as she told an interviewer at the time, “All of us were born with our hair like this and we just wear it like this because it’s natural, because the reason for it you might say is like a new awareness among black people that their own natural appearance, physical appearance, is beautiful.” (More recently she added, “That clip has taken on a life of its own on the internet. I keep getting messages from kids: ‘I saw that. That’s so cool.’ ”)

A number of Shames’s photos in Power to the People feature heavily armed, sharply dressed Panthers standing outside party offices or government buildings, where they had gone to demand equal rights. As Seale remembers in the book, “I saw Huey one day. He didn’t know what he had on. A sporty leather jacket, black slacks, nice blue shirt. He’s walking down the street. I say, ‘Hold it, Huey,’ just like a director.” That street encounter, plus a movie Seale saw featuring the black berets worn by French resistance fighters in World War II, resulted in a party uniform that added a stylish swagger to the Panthers’ revolutionary front.

Peppered throughout the book are streetwise graphics by Emory Douglas, the Panthers’ Minister of Culture, who designed the party’s newspaper. The June 27, 1970, issue of The Black Panther features “Warning to America,” a drawing of an African-American woman hefting an automatic rifle under the headline, “We are armed, and we are conscious of our situation, and we are determined to change it, and we are unafraid.” (Shames’s photos, a selection of Douglas’s graphics, and copies of The Black Panther are on display at Steven Kasher Gallery in Chelsea through October 29.)

One of Emory Douglas’s variations on his visual epitaph for Fred Hampton (1970). Douglas would sometimes change the color schemes in different editions of Panther newspapers and posters.
One of Emory Douglas’s variations on his visual epitaph for Fred Hampton (1970). Douglas would sometimes change the color schemes in different editions of Panther newspapers and posters.

Shames includes an excerpt from Newton’s autobiography, Revolutionary Suicide: “I constantly felt uncomfortable and ashamed of being black,” he wrote. “During those long years in Oakland public schools, I did not have one teacher who taught me anything relevant to my own life or experience…. All they did was try to rob me of the sense of my own uniqueness and worth, and in the process nearly killed my urge to inquire.” Newton was functionally illiterate after graduating from school, and taught himself to read as an adult by working through Plato’s Republic; he went on to study law with Edwin Meese, who eventually became President Reagan’s retrograde attorney general.

Meese later observed, “I was teaching law, criminal law, for police officers and people who wanted to be police officers and one of the students in my class was Huey Newton. He later wrote in his book that he was taking these law enforcement courses because he wanted ‘to know as much as the pigs knew.’ ” Meese recalled, “In the middle of the course, one day he asked if he could ride to the courthouse with me…. Well, it turned out actually he was on trial. He had stabbed someone with a steak knife at a barbecue some months before.” After serving a year for assault with a deadly weapon, Newton returned to Meese’s class while on parole, and earned an A.

Newton schooled the party members in both constitutional and local California law, making sure they carried law books containing the relevant statutes whenever they went on armed patrols. Power to the People exposes the pretzel logic that still governs America’s racial divide, pointing out that in 1967, Reagan, at that time the governor of California, signed a very strict gun-control law after the Panthers began toting rifles and pistols in public. Seale notes in the book, “The NRA wanted us arrested for carrying guns back in those days. Yes, they did.” Shames adds, “The National Rifle Association did not utter a peep of Second Amendment protest. Can you imagine what they would say if President Obama proposed a [similar law] today?”

But while stories about armed black men marching through California’s state assembly building were making nationwide headlines, the Panthers were also creating programs based on Newton’s and Seale’s ten-point platform demanding job opportunities, better public education, increased access to healthcare, prison and judicial reform, and other improvements in the lives of black citizens. The Panthers struck a balance between Malcolm X’s black separatism and Martin Luther King’s pacifism (they admired both leaders greatly). As Seale puts it in the book, “I can understand the difference between a white left radical who stands up for my constitutional rights and some goddamn racist Ku Klux Klan who wants to murder me.”

Emory Douglas: “Warning to America.”
Emory Douglas: “Warning to America.”

Shames (who is white) documented numerous multiracial “Free Huey” rallies when the Panther co-founder was on trial in 1968 for the killing of a police officer. (After Newton was convicted, two drunken Oakland police officers fired shots through the plate glass window of the Panthers’ office; they were later dismissed from the force. One of Shames’s iconic photos captures the bullet holes rending a poster of Newton sitting in a wicker chair holding a spear and gun. One can only imagine the reaction of the two former cops when the conviction was reversed on appeal and, after two subsequent hung juries, Newton was released in 1970.) Shames also photographed a massive funeral for party member George Jackson, author of Soledad Brother, a collection of letters condemning brutality and racism in the prison system. Jackson was killed during a 1971 prison break.

The Panthers were perpetually in the crosshairs of local and federal authorities. A December 1970 copy of the party newspaper features a portrait of Chicago leader Fred Hampton surrounded by black chevrons, with party slogans in red — “You can jail a revolutionary but you can’t jail the revolution” — along with an epitaph of sorts: “Born August 30, 1948, Murdered by Fascist Pigs December 4, 1969.” None of the officers who raided Hampton’s apartment at 4:45 a.m. were charged with murder for shooting the unarmed Panther leader multiple times in the head, but his family and that of another victim won a massive $1.85 million settlement from the City of Chicago, Cook County, and the federal government in a wrongful-death suit, in part because it emerged that Hampton had been drugged by an agent provocateur directed by FBI COINTELPRO operatives.

Even non–party members were harassed. Power to the People recounts how the FBI tailed the man who’d volunteered to do the plumbing at the George Jackson People’s Free Medical Clinic. “God, they wasted millions of dollars following innocent people around,” Dr. Tolbert Small remembers. The Panthers’ medical facilities were some of the first in the nation to routinely screen patients for sickle cell anemia, and they provided free STD screening for local youths as well. Shames also photographed members distributing free food and clothing in poor neighborhoods. One shot captures party member Leonard Colar, big as a linebacker and natty in a double-breasted overcoat, escorting an elderly woman on a grocery shopping trip, as part of the Panthers’ SAFE Club that accompanied seniors to cash checks and buy food in high-crime areas.

The book’s oral histories (which elide time periods by mixing quotes from the deceased with current conversations) point out that the Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children Program provided a template for school breakfast and lunch programs today, and that the Panthers’ police patrols eventually evolved into civilian-review boards and what we now consider community policing. And for all their machismo, the Panthers were open to women in their ranks. A former leader, Ericka Huggins, notes in the book, “Part of the legacy of the Black Panther Party is that we were not afraid to look at race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. All of it. Huey wrote in support of the woman’s movement and the gay liberation movement. Who the heck — what black man, what white man, what any man was talking like that in 1970?”

Eldridge Cleaver in the Panther office the day it was shot up by two Oakland police officers, September 29, 1968.
Eldridge Cleaver in the Panther office the day it was shot up by two Oakland police officers, September 29, 1968.

Shames often composed portraits to include telling background details. A photograph of Eldridge Cleaver, taken in 1968 when he was running for president representing the Peace and Freedom Party, is dominated by a huge banner behind the Panthers’ Minister of Information’s head, reading, “Don’t Vote for Shit.” (The electorate took him at his word: He received 0.05 percent of the vote.) And despite the perils of their endeavor, the party founders retained a sense of humor. Toward the end of the book, Shames includes a four-frame sequence in which Newton and Seale stare at the lens with steely gravitas, glare at each other, and then begin cracking up before the camera pulls back as they double over with laughter.

The book closes with a litany of current concerns that echo the Panthers’ original ten-point program: a justice system that remains stacked against the poor, galloping wealth inequality, shadowy oligarchs pouring money into the electoral process, a tax system that favors the wealthiest 1 percent of citizens, racial disparities in employment and education, banks that redline minorities out of homeownership. And of course, the continued killings of unarmed black men and youths by police, which has given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. The Panthers were canny in their ability to turn protest into publicity, forcing issues that too many Americans wanted to ignore — police brutality, institutionalized racism — beyond the pages of the party’s own newspaper and into the mainstream media. It has fallen to BLM to update the imagery of outrage by using social media via instantaneous cellphone uploads — so different from the laborious process of shooting and developing film in Shames’s day.

Panthers line up at a “Free Huey” rally in DeFremery Park, Oakland, July 28, 1968.
Panthers line up at a “Free Huey” rally in DeFremery Park, Oakland, July 28, 1968.

One double-page photo (taken in Brooklyn circa 1970–71) captures a rubble-strewn lot hard against a crumbling brick wall spray-painted with the phrase “THE MOON BELONGS TO THE PEOPLE!!!” Is this a cry against the millions spent in 1969 to land a man on the moon even as some American children went to bed hungry, or a joyful outburst that finally there was something all Americans could share equally?

Outmanned and outgunned, the Panthers stood their ground, and paid a fearsome price, but they remained steadfast in the belief that Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness is the birthright of all Americans. That wasn’t true for slaves when those words were written in 1776, and they remain unattainable for many of their descendants — and for too many of the 99 percent of any color. Seale and Shames remind us that progress has been made but that true equality can still feel as distant as the lunar surface.

Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers
By Stephen Shames and Bobby Seale
256 pp., Abrams, $40
‘Power to the People: The Black Panthers in Photographs by Stephen Shames and Graphics by Emory Douglas’
Steven Kasher Gallery
515 West 26th Street, 212-966-3978 Through October 29
Bobby Seale & Stephen Shames talk + book signing
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
515 Malcolm X Boulevard, Thursday, October 27, 6:30 p.m.

Runaway Slaves Torment The Haunting in Connecticut Sequel, Ghosts of Georgia

Just in time for Black History Month comes a horror movie about . . . the horror of slavery? Well, not exactly, although some of the restless spirits in the preposterously titled The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia do turn out to be runaway slaves who never left a rural Peach State property that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. Just why they’re so restless takes a while for our de rigueur new homeowners (Abigail Spencer and Chad Michael Murray) to suss out, but it certainly helps that mom, auntie (Katee Sackhoff) and four-year-old moppet Heidi (Emily Alyn Lind) are all blessed with powers of paranormal perception. An in-name-only sequel to 2009’s laughably bad (but profitable) The Haunting in Connecticut, Ghosts of Georgia is based on yet another “true” story of the supernatural proffered by a real family (seen in photos during the end credits) taking their cue from Amityville Horror hoaxsters George and Kathleen Lutz. The rotting corpses, projectile insect vomit, and creepy geezers in black arrive pretty much on cue, as does the great Cicely Tyson as the obligatory old blind woman who “sees” more than most people with two good eyes. It’s her upper bridge, though, that’s truly the scariest thing in the whole movie.


Guy Davis

He acts, he writes, he sings the blues. And for this special round of shows celebrating Black History Month, Guy Davis will get to do it all. Combining his knack for Delta-inspired blues that still ring with modern day vitality, with a storytelling savvy and maybe a nod or two to his regular work on Broadway (he currently stars in the revamped Finian’s Rainbow), Davis should be able to give everyone in these audiences something on which to hang their hats. Remember how Mississippi John Hurt sang about the little fish and the big fish swimming in the water? Well, Davis is both.

Fri., Feb. 5, 8 p.m.; Sat., Feb. 6, 8 p.m., 2010


Afrocentrifugal Force: Looking Blackward With Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Another year, another Black History Month, another Henry Louis Gates Jr. PBS special. Gates has the lock on this annual Afrocentrifest, and make no mistake. Following in the footsteps of his previous TV programs Wonders of the African World and America Beyond the Color Line, African American Lives is a four-hour miniseries that proves black history doesn’t need to be a black hole. Drawing on genealogy experts and contemporary DNA technology, Gates traces the family history of eight celebrity guests as far back as possible—sometimes even back to Africa. Along the way, he uses events in the lives of these families to make broad but engaging points about American history. Illustrating the various dramatic effects of the Great Migration, he notes that most of the subjects’ ancestors got swept up in the disorienting journey north, but one forward- thinking preacher bought land in his Georgia village and parceled it out to his parishioners in order to keep their close-knit community together.

Gates plays it like a folksy Mr. Rogers figure, sometimes even grasping a guest’s hand after a poignant discovery. As he digs for his own roots, Gates offers genealogical tips for ordinary people who want to look blackward. But his eight subjects aren’t ordinary people by any stretch of the imagination —they include Oprah, Whoopie, Quincy Jones, Chris Tucker, and astronaut Mae Jemison. Although I’m sure their heartrending family histories resemble those of thousands of other African Americans, the fame at the end of the rainbow is distracting. Oprah finds an ancestor who went from illiterate slave to schoolmaster in a decade; Gates’s great-great-grandmother Jane somehow managed to buy a house shortly after her emancipation. You have to wonder how much of a ripple effect these extraordinary accomplishments had on their descendents, and how much, as Gates jokes about his own family, is in the genes.


Mixed aims sink Drowning Crow: Hip-hop undoes Chekhov

This is apparently Rant at Regina Taylor Week—if she’s not careful, it could become an annual feature of Black History Month—but before I join the venting chorus, in all fairness, I’d like to mention some of the good things about Taylor’s idea. The tragedy, of course, is that these good things don’t show up in the mostly miserable results onstage at the Biltmore. First, there’s nothing wrong with the notion of adapting Chekhov to a contemporary African American context. Chekhov’s pointillistic, scrupulously notated plays are near perfect in themselves; but that doesn’t mean a resourceful writer couldn’t create an entirely different contemporary play inspired by them. The trouble here is Taylor’s surprising lack of resource: She’s tried to give Chekhov’s world a face-lift—turning farm horses into Mercedeses and so on—which only makes the adaptation seem lame.

Second, there’s no reason to shrink from the idea of bringing hip-hop into the theater; the Hamlet-sampling rap that closes Taylor’s first half isn’t wrong in itself. But the problem is form: Chekhov’s play is poetic naturalism, a middle way that he carefully differentiates from both Arkadina’s stagy repertoire and her son Konstantin’s symbolist chamber drama. Taylor’s debate is between two media so disparate that there are no grounds for challenge—or means of fusion. (You merely wonder why Taylor’s Mrs. Ark Trip doesn’t introduce her rapper son to Russell Simmons.) The failure’s underscored by the third good motive behind Taylor’s work: Drowning Crow is a chance to sample the dazzling panoply of African American acting today. Or would be, if only Taylor and director Marion McClinton had shaped something for these wonderful artists to play.


Machine Age


Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on BET

Just in time for Black History Month, BET rigs up the first African American reality show. Trailing eight photogenic students at Southern University in Baton Rouge, College Hill cultivates stereotypes, from the saucy nymphet to the sci-fi-loving bohemian, all ready to abase themselves before the cameras.


February 17 at 10 p.m. on PBS

Stanley Nelson weaves family memories into this very personal documentary about Oak Bluffs, the section of Martha’s Vineyard that has served as an oasis for several generations of middle-class African Americans.


February 16 at 9 p.m. on Showtime

This didactic dramatization of the 1991 Crown Heights riots has the feel of an after-school special, focusing on two earnest local leaders (Howie Mandel as a bearded Jew and Mario Van Peebles in unconvincing dreads) trying to bring the neighborhood youth together via rap and murals.

Other TV Reviews This Week:

Curb Your Enthusiasm

Tanner ’88


False Flags

You see how they’re really trying to market things toward us, —50 Cent’s response to seeing the Black Liberation flag on Limited Nike Air Force Ones worn by Big Tigger on Rap City’s Tha Bassment

Whether it’s Adidas using icons Run-D.M.C. in the 1980s or Nike making those basketball-dribbling commercials synced with scratching and beats breaking today, there’s absolutely nothing new about a sneaker and clothing corporation like Nike trying to attract young black and Latino buyers by connecting their image with some that the youth hold dear. The end result of these campaigns is usually that the corporation has relative success with sales and the youth are broke again, still living in despair with only a pair of overpriced sneakers to show for Nike’s “interest” in our culture.

“Oh, hell no!” said Taina Delgado when she first saw the Puerto Rican flag embroidered on a pair of Nikes in 2000. Taina, who helps manage an address book full of musicians, including one recently nominated for a Grammy, finds it hard to keep a balance in an industry so caught up in appearance. “I’m the first to admit that I spend too much and care too much about my clothes. But they’ve got our nations on their sneakers like they care about us, like Nike actually represents us on that level. I remember thinking how they must have planned to hit Transit [a popular sneaker store] right before the Puerto Rican Day Parade. And I’m thinking, ‘Damn, these bastards are really trying to capitalize on our culture.’ And they did . . . and still are.”

Since then, not only has Nike released Limited Air Force Ones with the Puerto Rican flag, the company has also released a pair of Bo Jackson cross trainers with the Dominican flag. The list goes on to include a model called the “West Indies,” sporting the aforementioned words in small red, gold, and green letters on the outside, with all the names of the islands on the insole.

And now, the most recent and most insulting Limiteds: Air Force Ones with the Black Liberation flag.

“Really, it’s some bullshit attempt at making a Black History Month commemorative sneaker. [If] they wanted to do some lame shit for Black History Month they should have put Martin Luther King’s face on the kicks,” said M1 of revolutionary but gangsta rap duo dead prez. “That particular flag isn’t even a country. Nike doesn’t support the liberation of Africans whatsoever, so Nike has no business putting the Liberation Flag on their sneakers or any other products,” continued M1. Being the revolutionary soul that he is, M1 came up with some demands to throw at Nike, since speaking out sometimes just isn’t enough.

“Well, for one, they can give to the annual Black August Benefit Concert. But with no Nike banner at the concert or any other kind of strings attached, said M1. “We also want Nike to contribute to the reparations community led by Blacks with all their resources, money, sneakers, clothes, access to athletes, everything. Reparations is an issue in line with the strategy of liberation for African people.

Though not everyone was thinking as far ahead and in as much detail as M1, everyone was definitely on a similar page. Like Gregarious, a former a&r direrector.

“I still wear Nikes all the time even though I know about all the child labor shit, and I know it only cost them a few bucks to make a pair, and then they turn a around and sell it for a few hundred, which is what some of these Limiteds cost. In spite of all that, I still spend way too much money on kicks. But I draw the line at flags. What I look like paying Nike to wear my people’s flag? Gimme a break,” he said. Gregarious is a bit more aware of Nike’s exploitive business sense, but the average consumer isn’t thinking that far outside the shoebox. The average consumer is thinking, “Oh shit! Nike is representing for me and my country. Let me put my blue-collar dollar into that.” It’s not an option. Nike must give back.

Remember when a lot of rappers suddenly started wearing those sweatbands with the red, black, and green colors? Everybody from Jay-Z to Lil Wayne was sporting them, then everybody else. Funny how no one bothered to discuss what the colors mean or who Marcus Garvey was or anything even remotely having to do with liberation. And now, instead of forking over a few dollars for a wristband, unsuspecting consumers will be spending three figures on some sneakers. Open your eyes y’all. We’re getting pimped. Get some get back. Think Banksta.