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From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Black Metropolis: Industry and the Kingdom of God

Not of this World

Think of it as a factory town.

As you approach Brooklyn on the Man­hattan Bridge from Outside (from Manhat­tan, from anywhere), buildings bearing com­pany names, sometimes not, line the exit ramp. Terminally gray, active or inactive, the buildings lie in the shadow of a structure, perhaps factory, floating like an island on an island: the Watchtower.

If you forget to pretend you aren’t home and bother to ask, there are any number of things a Jehovah’s Witness can tell you: traveling from door to door is but one of their missions as witness to Jehovah’s word; The Watchtower (“An­nouncing Jehovah’s Kingdom”) and Awake! are biweekly publications with a combined circulation of 22 million world­wide; Jehovah is God’s “real” name; Ar­mageddon is upon us; Jehovah has, in His Kingdom here on earth, a warehouse that contains a printing press and a sup­ply of food; the administrative offices of the World Headquarters (including video display) are located at the foot of Brook­lyn Heights; Charles Taze Russell of Allegheny, Pennsylvania, began publishing Zion’s Watchtower in 1879 based on a “non-denominational” reading of the Bi­ble; any contribution would be appreciated.

In image and text the Witnesses’ pam­phlets parallel, almost exactly, the im­pression received strolling through the World Headquarters, its grounds or dor­mitories. It is a world of hyperrealistic but muted color; words so banal in their insistence on rhetoric as expression that they glide off the page, past the ear, and remain difficult to decipher; and faces, primarily white, that respond to the Out­side visitor with the forced good cheer reserved for those who inhabit a world that is not their own.

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The custodians in the main building of the World Headquarters go about the business of wiping off any publicly used surface — the receiver on a telephone, a water fountain, doorknobs — silently, me­thodically. They dress in much the same manner as their coworkers (skirts below the knee for the women; crew cuts, suits and ties for the men) but wear pink plas­tic gloves as a safeguard against “what others might bring in.” Sometimes, as they work, they will exchange greetings with other Witnesses, but mostly their dedication to the work at hand is com­plete. Which may explain the complete lack of reference to any surface being touched. It might also explain one’s reluc­tance to touch any surface.

“In Heaven there is no class. Heaven is made up of only 144,000 members of Je­hovah’s Kingdom. They get to go because they’ve been anointed,” said Bob Balzer, a spokesman at the World Headquarters. Balzer has been with the organization since 1939. He has the appearance of one who’s been cut from the space surround­ing him. His tidy features, white skin, and smooth complexion are fixed and un­troubled by expression. “Everything we preach or witness to is the literal truth as recorded in the Bible. We carry out the law as Jehovah has set it down.” Among the rules Jehovah has not set down but which make, as one Witness said, “the organization run smoother,” is the meth­od by which volunteers are chosen to live in a section of the Kingdom established at World Headquarters, the living space called Bethel. As Balzer explained, appli­cants are screened by a “traveling over­seer” who reviews their homes, families, and commitment to living a “righteous life.”

Although there has been an increase in the number of Witnesses who live at Bethel, due, in part, to the rise in the number of Witnesses skilled enough to take part in the publishing and produc­tion side of the industry, the various con­gregations still gather together “at the morning prayer and breakfast meeting,” Balzer told me. “Video cameras monitor us and allow us to see the other congrega­tions within the complex. There is no one person that officiates. We do, however, have a governing body made up of, oh, 13 people. The racial mix? I believe there are several Polish people.” Balzer blinked his eyes twice. On the table before him were several issues of The Watchtower and Awake! He turned to an issue of Awake! containing a feature entitled “Us­ing Your Head — The African Way!” The article was accompanied by photographs of African “youngsters” and, pre­sumably, adults, “toting” loads on their heads. “We are growing,” Bob Balzer said. “In Africa alone there are 10,000 Witnesses.” He nudged the magazines across the table. “You should enjoy your visit with the congregation in Crown Heights. It’s one of our largest.”

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

On the face of it the Kingdom Hall on Montgomery Street in Crown Heights does not feature any of the visual lures that most other houses of worship in that neigh­borhood do. It does not boast neon, slo­gans, or size as a means of attracting an audience. It is set apart, on a side street, from the large West Indian community that began to edge its way down Nos­trand Avenue in the ’60s. The children of that generation of immigrants are now dread — praise Jah, blast reggae, sell Rasta wear, and pretend to have no un­derstanding of the Seventh-Day Advent­ists or Jehovah’s Witnesses, even though relatives might have embraced one or the other. On the surface Crown Heights is a community at odds with its own faiths as well as the dominant neighborhood faith, Hasidism. The synagogue, located on Eastern Parkway just a stone’s throw from the Kingdom, looms larger than all the crosses and billboards, reggae and botanicas. It’s bigger than them all.

In case it’s hard to believe just their witness, Witnesses will reinforce their take on the way things are lived on the Outside by quoting, accurately, a surpris­ing amount of scripture, often listing chapter and verse. Such knowledge is their anchor in the world; it reinforces them. So to see emblazoned across the wall of the main meeting hall “As for me and my household, we shall serve Jeho­vah,” is to be made conscious of a com­munity in search of not only a language of belief but a system of support.

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“Without Jehovah it is like living without Life,” said the young minister to his congregation. “Let us sing praises to Jehovah.”

The congregation rose and began to sing as if the tune were familiar but they didn’t quite know the hymn’s words. Faces the color of volcanic ash, faces the color of bleached dark stone, filled the hall. The congregation was dressed in the same manner as their “brothers and sis­ters at the Headquarters,” but in fabrics less finely woven if woven at all. The hair, too, was cut to similar length and style but made brilliant by hair condi­tioners or tonics.

After the singing was over a young, attractive woman with a West Indian accent named Esther passed her hymn book along to me. Following our exchange of greetings, she said that she’d been a Witness for three years and had come to Jehovah when she learned that, as a Wit­ness, one never dies.

“You know how it is,” she said. “You come to this country and work and thing and everyone dies. Your relatives, they work and die. It’s sad. Jehovah promises you eternal life. In Revelation, chapter 21, verses 3 and 4, it says that.” Esther smiled; her smile was the essence of vulnerability.

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Sitting there, one’s own conception of what “black religion” is supposed to mean (tambourines, white head rags, “spirit”) was dispelled by the unremitting “respectability” with which both ministers and congregation conducted themselves. The image of the traditional call­-and-response in a Baptist church, for instance, where an “Amen!” from the minister may prompt the same from the congregation seemed — in this Bible question and answer group where micro­phones amplified well thought-out answers and control colored the primary intonation — like a literary contrivance, an aspect more of one’s sense of theater than of what was actually taking place. And the notion of the church as a place Outside, away from the white world, where the drama of sociopolitical repres­sion could be acted out or spoken in “tongues,” is not a part of the Witnesses’ explicit agenda. When asked by a young minister what “pioneering” (i.e., leadership) qualities were most prized in a Wit­ness someone said, “A pioneer is not lazy. None of us is lazy here.” And again, when an announcement was made that the $300 a month raised by the congregation to build other Kingdom Halls was much appreciated by the society, there was a round of applause that indicated less a spirit of charity than achievement, gain. “Did you know,” minister Len Hall said to me following the service, “that we are capable of building a ball for our people in two days? We like to serve where the need is greater.”

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Solomon Leary is a quiet, soft-spo­ken man whose dress shirt, on the evening we met, was frayed at the collar but immaculate. His wife, Gwen, is large in stature and has a wide, expressive mouth; together they look like a Thurber caricature of the domineering wife and submissive hus­band. Gwen doesn’t work, but Solomon does. He’s up at six and goes out into the world in his role as a bindery printer. Most nights, he doesn’t get home from the hall until 10. The Learys have raised three boys, all of whom are Witnesses.

“If I didn’t want to talk to you I wouldn’t,” Gwen said. “My husband didn’t feel comfortable about it but I wanted to because I wanted to wipe away all the lies they tell about us in the papers.”

Gwen has been a Witness for many years, since just after she and Solomon came north from North Carolina. “Just a town in North Carolina. Yes, I went to church there, but it was all lies. And the way the people behaved! Carrying on about the Trinity and blood and all that stuff. None of it is true. If you really want to serve Jehovah you serve Jehovah. You don’t want to make a molehill out of a mountain.”

When Gwen speaks, Solomon is apt to sit quietly, underlining her points with references from the Bible. When he does speak it is with the authority of one who has had to wait out someone else’s words for many years. “I saw you speaking with Brother Hall,” he said, referring to a conversation in which Hall told me that he had been among the eight black witnesses sent to Plant City, Florida in 1956 to establish a congregation. Although there was no such thing as integration at the time, it didn’t matter. He had gotten the job done, even if some of the white Wit­nesses were racists. “But that was years ago, when it was a law,” he told me. “That’s right,” Solomon said. ”One of the things that being a Witness is about is getting rid of that animal attitude to be a racist. None of us are racists now because Jehovah has come into our lives.”

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For some time Jehovah’s Witnesses have felt that Armageddeon was upon us, a time in which God would rid the world of all those who did not live by his word. Gwen had a number of ideas about how that would take place, chief among them being AIDS. The world that produces such inexplicable tragedy is one that cannot include her family or any of Jeho­vah’s chosen. Like Esther, Gwen believes that she will live forever. And one of the methods used to insure that is by staying away from the world. “That is not our world, it’s theirs. We have nothing to do with it.”

Although Solomon and two of their sons work, they keep their distance from coworkers by thinking about Jehovah most of the time. At lunch they read His Word. As isolated in their insular world as someone speaking in tongues, the Learys practice the values of assimilation: work, for the night is coming. “Working is a necessity,” Gwen said. “We all realize that. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are a part of it. We keep our distance because they don’t know what we know. I just heard a story about a Witness, a young man, who quit his job because of the way they talked about women, the nasty pictures they would show. That’s the kind of strength we have.”

The Learys have sent their children to public schools, but don’t feel the damage was bad enough to prevent them from choosing to become Witnesses. “We do not influence our children to become Wit­nesses here,” Gwen said. “How are chil­dren treated if they do not want to join? They are outside the fold. Jehovah is looking for sheep and if the sheep leave the fold no one knows what becomes of them, do they? And what about you? Do you know what’s become of you?” ■­

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1960-88

Since learning of 27-year-old painter Jean-Michel Basquiat’s accidental death by drug overdose last week, what I live over and over again are not so much the hideous and hideously stu­pid circumstances surrounding his pre­mature demise, nor the fact that so much splendor has been left by someone so young. He was a vibrant painter, a complicated artist, who produced work that meant more to the viewer, to me, than met the eye. But what I missed immediately was the figure of Jean him­self, one of the most beautiful young men — with one of the most original minds — I have ever met.

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It began with his eyes. I saw them­ — and him — for the first time in Brooklyn, our hometown. Never before and never since have I felt someone’s eyes pierce my consciousness in such a direct and directly personal way. Looking across the room at him and he at me, I saw the largely white cocktail party in which we stood grow smaller; the sea of faces that did not look like ours became a force that made us recognize each other to a degree that made at least my side of the conversation halting, stilted, naked. Sometimes love at first sight is like that.

And it was at first sight, too, that you realized Jean lived his life as if he had nothing to lose. At that same party he replaced the tape being played — Debus­sy — with a scratched bootleg recording by the Sex Pistols. As he danced about alone, I saw him watch, from the corner of his eye, to see just how long the others would take to pretend they would not react to the spectacle of dreadlocks, paint-splattered khakis, and brown limbs. As it happened, the others didn’t react. But then again, he did not stop dancing.

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That image was replaced, in later years, by the image of the artist as com­modity, enfant terrible, bad black bitch, nasty lout, charming gadabout. Initially identified with a group of artists who reached “blue-chip” status through their efforts as graffiti guerrillas (Jean’s tag­line: SAMO, as in Same Old Shit), he rapidly progressed to other forms of vi­sual expression. His paintings, drawings, and sculptures challenged the European idea of the “primitive”; as a disciple of Dubuffet and Twombly, he wanted to give his heroes the black face of his history.

It became increasingly difficult then to see him across the crowded rooms where so many of his paintings — in such a short time — loomed. The images he created always resonated for me because they were the truest representation of the “Negro” from my generation. In his last show, paintings with words like Mississippi and South African diamonds appear repeatedly in reference to what was being bought, sold, and lived outside of the world of his canvases. I think the words were metaphors for his position in the world just then, too. But that degree of self-knowledge is not what many people saw. Mostly what they saw was a boy so anxious for his life to begin — accompanied by love, by trust — ­that sadly enough he wanted to buy it all.

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Death not only happens once, but time and again to those of us who are left to speak of the dead. But sometimes we don’t. This has become a time in which we are more and more disinclined to speak of so frequent an event, essen­tially because, as Owen Dodson once said: “The dead have become the signs of our bury hour; our living crucifixion.” ❖

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Little Richard: Frutti

Frutti

December 11, 1990

What, If anything, can we regard as being ”true” about a documen­tary? A number of things, maybe. One thing for sure: the documen­tarian reconstructs the subject in his/her image.

Impossible to imagine attempt­ing authorial distance ( control) over the aura that is Little Rich­ard. Which William Klein does not. Which is why The Little Richard Story ( 1980) is a great, great film. Klein is dumb, nearly stu­pid, in the face (startling), body (possessed), voice (singular) of Richard, the self-proclaimed ”Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll” who changed everything. The first mu­sical icon to exclaim/proclaim the persona of ”bad nigger” (greasy skin, greasy hair, loud), Richard was a sexual menace too (faggot in eyeliner; big faggot in stretch pants). In fact, what Klein shows in his nearly perfect, essayistic form is just how nightmarish his image might seem to you, the prototypical American. Whose black nightmare is Richard? Yours? And do you like it?

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Klein opens these questions up, making them more than reflec­tive, by visiting Macon, Georgia (Richard’s hometown), where one hears the voices of women — of which Richard’s is a loving trib­ute. Working in a world they did not make, these women make it over by wailing, really mourning, the conditions — racism, sexism, class discrimination. Listening to them, we realize Richard had nothing to lose by crying so loudly too. Who would listen?

All those people and voices and language peculiar enough to be called ”different.” But by whom? Whose history is it, anyway? Klein says: not mine; it’s too com­plicated to be mine; but the colors and sounds are beautiful.

“The Little Richard Story”
Written and directed by William Klein
Film Forum
December 7 through 10

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BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

James Baldwin: Fathers and Sons

In “Alas, Poor Richard,” his great essay on Richard Wright, James Baldwin wrote: “I was far from imagining, when I agreed to write this memoir, that it would prove to be such a painful and difficult task. What, after all, can I say about Richard…?” When every­thing remains to be said, often nothing comes. Wright had been, he wrote, “…my ally, and my witness, and alas! my father.”

Poised between pain and a grappling for speech is not an uncommon condition to find oneself in at the death of an artistic forefather. There is the sud­den, forced relinquishment of a shared and charged conversation. And now, so many of the arguments remain to be finished.

Which explains, in part, the fear I ex­perienced at Baldwin’s memorial service. For although I had never met him, the discourse Baldwin began in me — which included a deeper examination of sexual politics concerning both heterosexuals and homosexuals, men and women — lies, like a multifaceted prism in tall grass, at the heart of his work. And now, with his death, that conversation is forever interrupted.

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There had been silences between us before. While attempting to discover my “self,” I had embraced and denounced his work several times, with the passion one reserves for a lover or father, and for much the same reasons. The attraction, initially, had been because Baldwin’s work opened up the world for me; it was also precisely because it did do that that it could, if not closely watched, over­whelm any perception I might eventually develop about it and the way we live now.

“…Idols are meant to be destroyed,” Baldwin wrote elsewhere in his essay on Wright. That statement was prophetic. No sooner had I read and reread the majority of his essays and novels than I began to stick holes in them, unreason his reason, resent what I took to be a cowardly fear of dealing, in print, with his “nature.”

Giovanni’s Room was the novel that garnered the most consistent level of at­tack; it seemed to be a parody of all one looked forward to in reading Baldwin: the virtuoso style, the inner life of characters that live and breathe. If he wanted to create a novel that dealt, primarily, with sexual ambivalence (i.e., barely closeted homosexuality), why did he make his protagonist white? And why place him in a land that was far, far away from every­thing Baldwin had ever known? It seemed like a complex strategy of avoid­ance on the author’s part, an unnecessar­ily obscure way to finally “deal” with who he was: black and gay and in exile.

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Well, chronology plays as much of a part in a writer’s life as it does in anyone else’s, if not more so, because they con­duct their education in public. The marked difference between Giovanni’s Room, published in 1952, and most of the work since Another Country, published in 1961, has to do, I suspect, with Baldwin burying his literary father, Richard Wright. Prior to Wright’s death in 1960, Baldwin’s treatment of sexuality was more or less in accordance with his pre­decessor: the Negro as walking phallic symbol, horrific to the white male, who feared for his own masculinity at every turn. Giovanni’s Room and “The Male Prison,” his essay on Gide, should be read not for their success or failure as literature, but, rather, as records of a sublimi­nal resistance to what the father deems “appropriate.” Even so, Giovanni’s Room was a literary step up for a writer whose “real” father often said he “was the ugli­est boy he had ever seen.”

And if one took a further step back, couldn’t Baldwin’s continual discussion of his “pop-eyes” and “ugliness” be viewed as a metaphor for his early feel­ings about his sexual difference — and the disdain with which those desires were met? That was something I understood too. When a same-sex preference makes itself clear, almost inevitably it is viewed not only as a particularly nasty sin but a white or European one. Especially within the context of the church, it is seen not as a question of choice but influence. But as Baldwin has written: “That world was white but it is white no longer.”

What humbled me in the face of Bal­dwin’s work, ultimately, was that he had lived beyond that knowledge, that pain, just enough to create out of it. He had barely escaped. That was an enormous revelation for me, and has been, too, a source of guilt, for my resistance was not greater than the argument. What I had loved and hated was his speaking my mind before I knew it.

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James Baldwin first became known to me through Owen Dodson, poet, play­wright, novelist, and teacher. Owen was my champion, he wrested me from a most unmanly petulance by admitting, in no uncertain terms, that he loved me. It was the first occasion I had ever heard of in which men admitted such things, let alone to each another. Owen knew that, and gave me “Alas, Poor Richard” to read. Owen had said: “Chile, all hell broke loose when Jimmy published that essay. But he had to do it. Sometimes I wonder if you’ll ever say those things about me.”

Of course I did. Part of the legacy of teachers, fathers, like Baldwin or Dod­son, is the right to free oneself from their tutelage, their love. Reading Baldwin, one knows that he wouldn’t have it any other way. Without that, the argument wouldn’t continue. Meanwhile, the prayer Baldwin set down for Richard Wright should hold us in good stead: “Well, he worked up until the end… and his work is now an irreducible part of the history of our swift and terrible time. Whoever He may be, and wherever you may be, may God be with you … and may He help me not to fail that argument which you began in me.” ❖

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives

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?”

“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:

CALL SHEET: MALCOLM X.
DAY: 58 OUT OF 75
CREW CALL 6P SET # INT
MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY (1957)
MALCOLM PROVES PORK IS FOUL.

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.”

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

Read Our 1992 Profile of Spike Lee and the Making of “Malcolm X”

Spike Lee’s masterpiece Malcolm X celebrates its 25th anniversary this month. (Go here to read Odie Henderson’s recent appreciation of the film, discussing its prescience and continuing power.) Back in 1992, on the eve of the film’s release, Village Voice writer Hilton Als interviewed and profiled Spike Lee. Als had visited the film’s set and spent months tracking its production. Lee’s ambitious epic was the most anticipated movie of the year; it was already being fought over politically and culturally well before its release. And the director at the time was one of the most exciting and controversial filmmakers in the world. Als’s piece expertly captures the anticipation and trepidation in the air before the film’s opening. You can read the piece below. We’ve also included the actual pages from that November 10, 1992, issue of the Voice.

 

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

At 6:58 on Tuesday, September 29th, 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 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.”

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” (Ossie 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 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 yet 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.”

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 glass 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 X 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 Oden 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?”

“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.”

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 guerilla 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.

“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”

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 verite 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.

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.

Those 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 are 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:

CALL SHEET: MALCOLM X

DAY: 58 OUT OF 75

CREW CALL 6P SET #INT

MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY (1957)

MALCOLM PROVES PORK IS FOUL

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.

“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 this 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.

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”

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 star 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.

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 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.

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 like “Do the Wrong Thing,” which speaks 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 are just 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 dropped her pink heel into the pool.

“God, I hate this place,” she said.

 

“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.

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

 

 

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BLURRED LINES

Most movies made in high school are best left in storage. But for multimedia artist Ryan Trecartin, who filmed a short titled “Junior War” starring his high school friends 15 years ago, it recently became a part of his installation at the 55th Venice Biennale. Tonight, Trecartin drops by BAM as “Junior War” make its U.S. debut along with three more of his short films at the fifth annual video and film festival Migrating Forms. If you’re not familiar with his elaborate mash-up films that usually depict a hyper-real world gone freak show, then this is the perfect time to get acquainted. Besides Trecartin’s work, the festival includes several U.S. and New York debuts and films by 36 artists from 15 countries. And mark your calendars for December 14, when The New Yorker’s Hilton Als interviews Sandra Bernhard after a screening of Without You I’m Nothing, the 1990 film adaptation of her solo Off-Broadway show.

Mondays-Sundays, 8 p.m.; Thu., Dec. 12, 9:30 p.m. Starts: Dec. 11. Continues through Dec. 17, 2013

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Really Black Humor

What’s so funny about a well-gnawed water-melon rind, ends upturned and grinning beatifically, on the cover of an African American humor anthology? If you don’t know, then perhaps Paul Beatty’s collection, Hokum, is not for you. Some might think the image in bad, ahem, taste; others may smirk in kind. Everyone has a right to be offended. But it’s precisely this subjective conflict—humor’s intrinsic, meat-or-poison ambiguity—that the book revels in questioning. That, and acknowledging for posterity the comedic genius that is Mike Tyson.

Edited by Beatty—whose novels, The White Boy Shuffle (1996) and Tuff (2000), are riotously brilliant satire— Hokum is anything but the bunk that its title might imply. Beatty attempts to weave the folkish familiarity of the oral and the noble austerity of the written, threads of the black literary tradition—prove both to be part of one unbroken strand. The editor aptly describes his tome as “a mix-tape narrative, dubbed by a trusted, though slightly smarmy, friend.” No drama king DJ, Beatty samples eccentrically—never distractingly so—allowing his featured players to flaunt their lyrical gifts while he remains content to play charismatic selector. And after a six-year hiatus from the novel, it’s reassuring to hear Beatty—himself the most furious of stylists, who tickles bones savage and silly—play so nimble, even when confined to just the introduction and three section headings.

So who makes this playful playlist? Part of Beatty’s project involves exposing his readers to writers or performers whose work hasn’t been given the recognition it deserves, and rediscovering the comedic talent of those not primarily known for such, opening the door for some unorthodox names, none of which happen to be Pryor, Cosby, or Murphy. How ’bout booming belly laughs from W.E.B. DuBois, Sojourner Truth, and Langston Hughes?

Funny is funny whether ruthless or whimsical, and there’s humor in Malcolm X chiding “house Negroes” for taking semantic ownership in “our government . . . our astronauts” and “our Navy” as Negroes “out of [their] mind,” and in Danzy Senna’s hilarious “Variations on a Theme of Mulatto” (which include African American Jews and Italians cheekily dubbed “Jewlattos” and “Gelattos”). The most anarchic charms lurk in the collection’s final, absurdist segment, which identifies jokey avant-gardism in stand-up, spoken word, and straight-up poetry. Confluences and relevancies abound: Recently shot rapper Cam’ron’s purple prose bears so much resemblance to Harryette Mullen’s fantastic, full-on alphabetical cartwheel “Jinglejangle” that he might think twice about tossing accusations of “swagger jacking” at Jay-Z.

Then there’s Iron Mike. If you listen closely, Tyson reveals scars much deeper than the ghastly tattoo he wears across his face. He can be politely barbaric (“My main objective is to be professional but to kill him”), delightfully metaphysical (“My power is discombobulatingly devastating. . . . It’s ludicrous these mortals even attempt to enter my realm”), and sublimely kooky (“I’ve been training Confuciously”). Tyson’s unintentional hilarity belies a psychologically battered bruiser. Convicted rapist, yes, and repugnant for sure, but occasionally his words possess a clarity of thought that hints at cultural insight: “The reason I’m [irresponsible] is because, at twenty-one, you all gave me fifty or a hundred million dollars and I didn’t know what to do. I’m from the ghetto. I don’t know how to act. One day I’m in a dope house robbing somebody. The next thing I know, ‘You’re heavyweight champion of the world’ . . . I’m just a dumb pugnacious fool.” Not quite funny ha-ha, but then neither is the “nigger” tossed at Andre Leon Talley by a French fashion house ingenue at the end of Hilton Als’s superb 1994 New Yorker profile, here reproduced in its entirety. Talley forces a laugh, though the gash in his vigorous personality is keenly felt.

Subtly, Als’s piece divines the source from which many of the featured writers draw, and which Beatty describes in his introduction: “African-Americans, like any other Americans, are an angry people with fragile egos. Humor is vengeance. Sometimes you laugh to keep from crying. Sometimes you laugh to keep from shooting.” A lot of the humor here is both Black and black, as the often grotesque injustice of said Black experience necessitates the usage of a more feral comedic form.

You may not, after reading Hokum, be able to surmise just why it is that the caged bird sings, or to discern the tears behind the raucous laughter (though if so, well done, as it will count toward your African American studies final grade), but you’ll damn sure smile. For those inveterate frowners among us, even two weeks of decompression in South Africa—with or without Dave Chappelle—won’t help.

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Forget the Books

If Hilton Als, Caitlin Flanagan, and Lee Siegel sat at the same table, they might seem to have nothing in common. Als, 40, wrote a 1996 memoir about coming of age as a gay black man in Brooklyn with a Barbadian past. Flanagan, also 40, is an Irish novelist’s daughter who became a prep-school teacher and is now a stay-at-home mom in L.A. Siegel, 44, is a former Ph.D. candidate at Columbia whose brawling prose recalls the young Norman Mailer.

But all three write sharply opinionated book reviews—Siegel for Harper’s and other publications, Als for The New Yorker, and Flanagan for The Atlantic Monthly. And all three are finalists for the American Society of Magazine Editors’ “reviews and criticism” award. The other nominees are food critics; the awards are to be announced May 1.

The book critics are fierce competitors for originality. Indeed, after reading their ASME submissions, one is likely to forget the books and remember only the writers’ sensibilities: Als as a champion of the social outsider, Flanagan as a satirist of class anxiety, and Siegel as a crusader for artistic and intellectual integrity.

Ben Schwarz, who is Books & Critics editor at The Atlantic, suggests that serious book reviews have never been about books, but about giving smart writers an opportunity to make a “bold, insightful argument with style.” Although one might imagine that the essay-like book review is a modern invention, Schwarz says the essay masquerading as review is a tradition that first flourished in the literary journals of the 19th century.

“Since 1802, when The Edinburgh Review was founded,” says Schwarz, “writers have found that the easiest way to make a broad cultural argument is to peg the argument to a book, and then the review itself becomes incidental. It allows you to write about intellectual subjects that might be more difficult for people to read if the writer didn’t have the books as a hook.”

But successful reviews are built on more than just a strong structural idea. A good critic has to “be honest and unmerciful,” as the Lester Bangs character explained in the movie Almost Famous.

“The critic has an obligation toward the ideas and the language of the book,” says John Sullivan, who edits Siegel at Harper’s. “As a matter of course, most book reviewers are either writing books themselves, or thinking about it, and that can lead to a certain cravenness. You can’t ask reviewers to commit career suicide, but you can ask them to value intellectual rigor above literary politics. If the critic isn’t willing to say what he doesn’t like, all you get are bouquets that have to do with behind-the-scenes back-scratching or negative pieces that are veiled revenge attacks.”

No one would accuse Siegel of sending bouquets. The best-known of his ASME submissions is a damning review of James Atlas’s biography of Saul Bellow, in which Siegel accused Atlas of taking a “ludicrously hostile and resentful approach to Bellow’s life” and suggested that Atlas was “driven insane by his subject’s cosmic laughter.”

“I’ve never gotten more calls or e-mails about a review than I did about that one,” says Sullivan. “People were moved by it.” Siegel’s other ASME submissions are less harsh, yet still acerbic, critiques of Louis Menand and Richard Yates. While the Harper’s scribe can be unsparing, Sullivan says he is not driven by animosity, but rather by the old-fashioned notion that “ideas are a matter of life and death.”

Sullivan says Siegel is “nostalgic for a time when there was civil but serious intellectual combat—a time when you could slam somebody’s book in the morning paper and sit down for a drink in the evening, and understand that it was not about personalities denigrating each other. It was about hashing out ideas in a public forum and holding literature to a high standard.”

Als is less interested in nailing writers’ flaws than in his own idiosyncratic worldview. According to Deborah Treisman, Als’s editor at The New Yorker, “We don’t classify him exclusively as a critic. He’s a writer who finds something to write about.” Whatever the subject, “You know you’re going to get an idea that you haven’t seen somewhere else. It’s not about making a case. It’s about explaining his perception of something, and he’s perfectly happy if you disagree.”

New Yorker editor in chief David Remnick calls Als a “remarkable” writer and one of “the best young critics of African American literature” writing today. (In a recent review, Als deftly took apart Randall Kennedy’s treatise on the word nigger.) Asked to describe Als’s approach, Remnick says, “It’s not a steely, removed intelligence. It’s full of love.”

Als’s work is hard to quantify. All three of his ASME submissions deal with dead fiction writers (Carson McCullers, Chester Himes, Flannery O’Connor) whom he admires and who have recently been the subject of a new anthology or study. Each writer tried to capture the black experience, but the real thread that unites them, says Treisman, is that they “are all outsiders or thought of themselves as such.” (McCullers was bisexual, Himes did time in jail, O’Connor never married and clung to her own provincialism.)

“Hilton writes about a specific type of disenfranchisement,” says Treisman. “Whether it’s defined by race, class, gender, or geography, it’s often about the artist as outsider, and what drives someone to create.”

If Als made a conscious decision to view society from the outside in, Flanagan has always seen it from the inside out. Daughter of the novelist Thomas Flanagan (who grew up Irish in Greenwich, Connecticut), the reviewer met Ben Schwarz’s wife when the two women taught together at a prep school in L.A. When Schwarz took over the Atlantic‘s books section, he immediately asked Flanagan to experiment with a new form.

“Caitlin has a true interest in, and affection for, popular culture,” says Schwarz. “She’s penetrating but doesn’t always look at it with just a sneer.” So does she sneer sometimes? “She would acknowledge some snobbery in her outlook,” he says, adding, “Because she has a strong sense of her own heritage, it bothers her when class aspiration inspires people to do things that have nothing to do with their background.”

Flanagan’s first Atlantic piece purported to be a review of 12 books on marriage, but was actually a lament on the way expensive “white weddings” are now marketed as a status symbol to the hoi polloi. Old-fashioned brides did not scour sample sales for Vera Wang gowns, she noted, nor did they buy Bride’s to learn honeymoon tricks involving “acrylic pearls [and] some water-based personal lubricant.”

In her ASME piece on Ivy League admissions, Flanagan mocks the way upper-class parents and children lust after the “best school,” and concludes that truly smart kids don’t need “some Ferrari of a college nudging them” toward a great education—because they will seek enlightenment wherever they go. She didn’t point out that reading ASME submissions could be a fantastic writing course unto itself.

Categories
ART ARCHIVES BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES

The Atrocity Exhibition

Without Sanctuary brings an art photography format to a collection of lynching pictures that are sickening to behold. It’s hard to imagine this book sitting out for idle perusal on someone’s coffee table, yet the very ghastliness on display makes it a powerful document of repressed history. While journalists and historians have been describing these atrocities since the late 19th century, the photos convey a dehumanization hard to put into words. If there is ever a trial of the white race, here is Exhibit A.

Most of the people shown hung or burned are black men, and many photos also include the proud white people who either did the deed or gleefully watched. These people wanted to pose with the corpse—it was often part of the ritual—and the results are reminiscent of the trophy picture in which a big game hunter shows off his kill. There’s the same quiet gloating, the same nonchalance. Some of the pictures also have inscriptions like “This is the barbecue we had last night”—that remark accompanies the photo of a charred upper body hanging from a pole. Clearly, the victims were treated like animals, but it’s the victimizers who’ve lost their humanity.

Without Sanctuary served as a catalog for the exhibit “Witness,” which drew such large crowds to the Roth Horowitz gallery that it reopened March 14 at the New-York Historical Society. The book provides the story behind each picture, if known. A few of them show white victims, some of them enduring “frontier justice” out West. Some were Italians or Jews, like Leo Frank, whose hanging in 1915 helped spark the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. These were individuals answering for alleged crimes. Some of the black victims had also been charged with serious crimes like murder and rape, but even if they were guilty, the subsequent execution was never really about revenge. In some cases, the victims had simply failed to show enough humility around white people, and were grotesquely, openly murdered to remind the entire black community of its “place.”

Lynchings directed at black people were so frequent, and sustained over so many years, that they qualify as acts of terrorism. These were symbolic killings. That’s why they were done so publicly. That’s why the victims were often killed many times over, their bodies sometimes obliterated or cut up for sou- venirs and distributed to the white mob. Scariest of all, the mobsters did not bother to conceal their identities. There are no Klan masks in these pictures, just “regular” folks, even sometimes “the best citizens.” An essay by historian Leon Litwack includes braggadocio from a U.S. senator, a newspaper editor, and a member of a state legislature along the lines of “I directed every movement of the mob.” In some Southern states, this evidently qualified a man for public office.

Without Sanctuary presents the pictures in a way that works against the utterly casual and disdainful spirit in which they were taken. The antique dealer who collected them, James Allen, found them at flea markets and garage sales. This was throwaway stuff. Postcards. Snapshots. And they document what the whites clearly regarded as throwaway lives. Litwack points out that sometimes the mob learned later that the person they’d just killed so brutally was completely innocent. The attitude about that seemed to be “oops.”

It seems appropriate that Without Sanctuary recontextualizes these photographs as precious and tragic, as evidence. But I know from years of research into one particular lynching that people are divided about the uses of such horrific artifacts, and that this cuts across racial lines. Better to give this wound some air so it can heal? Or better to just bury it? In an angry essay, Hilton Als refers to “the usefulness of this project which escapes me” and goes on to ask, basically, Why do I have to look at this, and aren’t you only asking me to look because I’m black? Well, given the subject matter here, I think it’s good that Als asks hard questions, the ones that make white people uncomfortable. We don’t need to go all the way to Texas and the lynching of James Byrd Jr. just a couple of years ago to know that black life in America is still held cheap.