Twenty-six years after Malcolm X was gunned down by assassins at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City, the battle over his legacy continues to rage. Next month Spike Lee begins shooting his movie on the life of Malcolm, and already howls of protest are filling the air.
At a rally held in Harlem early this month the black nationalist poet and playwright Amiri Baraka launched a preemptive strike against Lee's movie. "We will not let Malcolm X's life be trashed to make middle-class Negroes sleep easier," he proclaimed, exhorting the crowd to send letters to the filmmaker warning him "not to mess up Malcolm's life." Baraka, a spokesman for the United Front to Preserve the Legacy of Malcolm X, offers a wholesale dismissal of Lee's previous movies. "Based on the movies I've seen," he told NEWSWEEK, "I'M horrified of seeing Spike Lee make Malcolm X. I think Eddie Murphy's films are better."
"Where's his book on Malcolm?" retorts Lee. "When Malcolm was of this earth Amiri Baraka was LeRoi Jones running around the Village being a beatnik. He didn't move to Harlem until after Malcolm X was assassinated. So a lot of these guys-not all-weren't even down with Malcolm when he was around ... I was 7 years old so I had an excuse. I had to be home by dark."
One is not wrong to detect the note of a personal feud behind the debate. Baraka baits Spike for being a Buppie. Spike raps Baraka for speeding off from the rally in a limo. "This kind of little petty s-t!" fumes Baraka. "It's like Spike, as soon as you get him in a corner without ideas, he says 'Well, you were married to a white woman!' You almost feel ashamed to pop him in his mouth."
In part, their bad blood stems from an article Lee asked Baraka to write on "Mo' Better Blues" for a collection of essays on his films to be written by black critics. "I told him he wouldn't like anything I had to say about his work," recalls Baraka. "He wrote a piece that was 100 percent negative," Lee says. "Not everybody [in the book] is saying Spike Lee is great, great. But this was so negative I said, I ain't running this." (It's worth noting that Lee is also a close friend of Lisa Jones, Baraka's daughter from his first marriage, with whom he's collaborated on several books.)
But there is much more than a private spat at stake here, or the idiosyncrasies of two strong-minded artists dissing each other. Baraka and his followers haven't even read the script, which Lee has rewritten from a James Baldwin/Arnold Perl screenplay written decades ago. The furor is a testament to the ongoing importance of Malcolm as a symbol in the black struggle. Deeply disillusioned with the setbacks of the Reagan and Bush years, many African-Americans find Malcolm's message of black self-determination more relevant than ever. A new generation, from the rap community to the academy, has reclaimed him as the pre-eminent icon of black pride. In the past three years, sales of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" have increased 300 percent, and four of his books published by Pathfinder Press have seen a ninefold increase in sales between 1986 and 1991. But what is one to make of an icon whose philosophy has been embraced by such disparate figures as Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and a self-proclaimed revolutionary like Baraka? Alex Haley, who co-wrote the "Autobiography," sums up the quandary: "Probably no scriptwriter alive could write a script that would satisfy the diverse groups who feel an ownership of Malcolm, feel a possessiveness of the image of Malcolm."
What worries the critics of Lee's movie is which aspect of Malcolm's complex life will be emphasized. Some fear that any Hollywood movie will exploit the early criminal years, when Malcolm was a pimp and hustler known as Detroit Red. Others fear that Lee might misinterpret the last years, when Malcolm split from the Black Muslims and embraced a more orthodox and global view of the Muslim religion, and rejected his previously held belief that whites were inherently evil. They fear that Malcolm could be made to look too much like King, whose credo of nonviolence he rejected. Baraka, a follower of Louis Farrakhan, also fears that the movie could make a caricature of the Muslims.
The irony in the current controversy-a delicious one to some people-is that it wasn't long ago that Lee was protesting the fact that white director Norman Jewison was slated to make the Malcolm movie, from a script by black playwright Charles ("A Soldier's Story") Fuller. The protests that ensued led Warner Brothers to drop the project. "It's rather poetic justice, don't you think?" remarks Fuller, who looks no more fondly on Baraka's attack on Lee than he looked on Lee's attack on Jewison. "To say some black or white person should not participate in an art form is inconsistent with being an artist."
Jewison is more politic. It was he who brought Denzel Washington into the project to play Malcolm (he'll star in Lee's film). But Jewison claims he gave up the movie not because of the protest, but because he could never solve the riddle of Malcolm's private life; he claims he was never satisfied with the script. Spike Lee confirms this: "If Norman actually thought he could do it, he would have really fought me. But he bowed out gracefully."
The one man who has been involved from the beginning is producer Marvin Worth, who bought the rights to the autobiography 23 years ago and has been struggling ever since to get his project made. In addition to Baldwin, Perl and Fuller, such writers as white playwright David Mamet and black novelist David Bradley have attempted scripts. After the public outcry against Jewison, Worth came to the conclusion that "it needed a black director at this point. It was insurmountable the other way ... There's a grave responsibility here."
The responsibility for this $25 million Warner Bros. movie is now in Lee's hands. "I'm directing this movie and I rewrote the script, and I'm an artist and there's just no two ways around it: this film about Malcolm X is going to be my vision of Malcolm X. But it's not like I'm sitting atop a mountain saying, 'Screw everyone, this is the Malcolm I see.' I've done the research, I've talked to the people who were there."
"The essence of this debate is not about Malcolm X," says Manning Marable, professor of political science at the University of Colorado, and an expert on Malcolm. "It's about the essence of where black America is going. He has become a symbol of African-American survival in the 1990s for a generation whose own leadership does not hold a candle to what Malcolm had been. There is a crisis of leadership."
Round one is over, but there will surely be more controversy when the film finally gets released. Lee, who has shown no compunction about attacking other black artists in the course of his meteoric career, says he is saddened by the current dispute, which strikes him as ironic when the subject was a man who counseled strength through unity. "It just points out that we are still the most divided people on the face of the earth. You would think that that's the one thing that they would have learned from Malcolm."
Photos: A struggle for the soul of a black hero: Lee defends his right to film the history of a martyred militant (JOHN LAUNOIS--BLACK STAR (INSET), E.J. CAMP-OUTLINE)
Ideological street fight: Baraka (center, in hat) confronts his foe (RICK FALCO-SIPA)
In four weeks I will begin directing my sixth feature film, "Malcolm X." This is a serious problem for some people, some people like Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Elombe Brath, Viola Plummer and others. They represent the United Front to Preserve the Legacy of Malcolm X. They have appointed themselves as the ministers of Black Culture, and it is they who decide what is politically correct art, and which art isn't. This is my problem with them: I know I never voted to put them into office. Who did? When was the election? Tell me. Who decides the prescribed legacy of Malcolm X?
Whose Malcolm is it anyway.? Malcolm belongs to everyone and everyone is entitled to their own interpretation. African-Americans as diverse as Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, Minister Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson and Chuck D of Public Enemy all claim him. I reserve my right as an artist to pursue my own vision of the man.
Growing up, my grandmother used to tell me about Negroes and "crabs in a barrel"-when one tries to climb up, the others try to yank it back down. I didn't want to believe her then, but I'm beginning to see it's true. If my critics really want to help me, and not just tear me down, send me your documents, your research on the importance of Malcolm X. Fed Ex your papers, your books, your articles. If you've done work, I will read it.
The truth is that most of these people haven't done the work; all they've done is run their mouths. In fact, when Malcolm was alive, Amiri Baraka was down in Greenwich Village running around with Allen Ginsberg living that "Jungle Fever" beatnik-bohemian life. Only after Malcolm was assassinated did he take the A train uptown and help start the Black Arts Movement. This is not meant to be a slam. I only want to point out that people's views change over the years and are constantly in flux. I might add that after the Aug. 3 rally to protest the film, Baraka, the Black Marxist Revolutionary, jumped into a black limo and sped off down Lenox Avenue, past the lumpen proletariat of Harlem. And he calls me a "middle-class Negro"!
Let's be honest, of all the social ills that afflict 30 million African-Americans in this U.S. of A., is this the most important issue that the United Front can rally around? Where was the United Front when white Canadian director Norman Jewison was slated to do the film?
I'm through with this. No more public spats. No more defending ourselves. And no more discussions. As my great grandfather used to say, "DEEDS NOT WORDS." Stop talking and do the work that needs to be done. Our work is making the best film that can be made to the best of our abilities about the legacy of Malcolm X, and that's all that can be asked of any artist.