Back with his long-cherished movie biography of 605 black leader Malcolm X, director Spike Lee ploughs through yet another media blitz of hype and controversy. Trevor Johnston watches the man in action and ponders what makes him so successful at getting his ﬁlms noticed.
That said. along with the incendiary [)0 The Right Thing it happens to be Lee‘s best film. putting his natural storytelling ability to sustained use as it charts Malcolm‘s progress from street hood to jailbird. Muslim convert to preacher for the Nation of Islam. black activist to ideological icon. A startling physical likeness. Denzel Washington is pretty damn titanic in the central role and. while not the most emotionally involving of Lee's works. the film certainly measures tip to the director‘s intention which was "l‘o present Malcolm both as a human being and in a heroic light. because we haven‘t seen a movie about a hero before. coming from the context of black America. It‘s an epic on the scale of the David Lean films like Lari'renr'e ()fArahia and Bridge ()n The River Kli‘ai.‘
Regardless of the quality of the movie itself. which is hardly in doubt. Lee knows that the essence of garnering attention is the concept of the struggle. Nobody wants to hear about a film that goes off smoothly. but the pages of movie mags like the US Premiere are filled with the minutiae of production discord.
‘There was so much riding on Malcolm X l because it was the biggest budget black movie ' to date.‘ Lee confirms midway through his UK I 1, promotional visit. ‘lts success will be measured l ‘t not only at the box office but by eternity. in terms of the number of people from future generations it‘ll introduce to Malcolm. And it‘ll also show the way towards more black biopics. which we don‘t exactly have iil abundance right now. That‘s why it took years i of my life to light all the way to get it done. That‘s why we fought a running battle with Warner Brothers in public. because if we were going to get fucked. l was going to be sure that i everyone was going to know about it.‘
Although Lee himself admits that the studio was entirely won over when they saw the first rough cut of the film (be naturally reserves particular praise for the company‘s marketing department). the tussle between Spike and the I Time-Warner conglomerate began when
As in seXy. As in X-rated. As in eXciting. Looks good on a cap.
Cannes in ‘89 — the merchandising on Spike's
pictures is so cool he has his own New York
Makes an cyc-cmching poster, Am) 3 shop to sell it in. with further stores planned
[he Batman logo it works on its ilCI‘OSS the T()l(y(). London . . . And when 21
()wn. Creating ingtam recognition 3 new Spike llle‘S about [0 hit the SCFCCHS.
and an immediate awareness that ' prepare yourself for a media feeding frenzy of
Spike's new movie is about to come your way. inlCFViCWS. intimate PriilllCS. 21 WhOlC 1’0”ng The whole Malcolm X marketing campaign is "11188 0f Wall-iO-Wiill L66.
just another example of the Spike Lee genius Because. as ihC man kilOWS 50 W0”. there
for promotion. his instinctive nous for working always has i0 be it story. Alid Mil/WI"! X is “0
his way into people‘s consciousness by any different.
means necessary. From X baseball hats to A three—hour-plus movie with very little sex
much-coveted [)0 The Right Thing t-shirts - Ihel and huge wodges of political and religious
hot fashion item when that film premiered at ' theorising was always going to be a hard sell.
Joe Lampard charts the history of Black American filmmaklng.
name but a few. Up until now this i l message consisted to a large extent of , contemporary topics and social
2 the film into production during the ; summer months and finally, come fall, ( i he would be back travelling the l
the baddies who were invariably pushers, pimps or iunkles. Thus was born the ‘Blaxploitation’ . . : cinemas again. this time with his 1 genre which lasted throughout the 705 ; Problems such as rental tensgon. completed work. i and included films such as Black 1 gangs. guns. and drugs With films like _ Jump forward in time to the 703, and ( Caesar (1973), Blackenstein (1973) ! New Jack City and Boyz N The Hood. we have Meivin Van Peebles. the man and Black Fist (1976). Luckily there Not that this is particularly a bad 5 many consider to be the father of were a few exceptions to the rule ' "'an and “880" WWW“ some 1 modern black cinema, whose most including Cotton Comes To Harlem enihialllﬂg ﬁlms. but now that ' notable film was Sweet Sweetback’s (1970), Superfly (1972), the now "3'60"" X has been completed and l 3 Baadasssss Song (1970). Van Peebles legendary Shaft (1971), actors like released. we may hopefullv see less '
‘By any means necessary’ is a much used (at times misused) quote, not only relevant to Spike Lee’s long awaited biopic Malcolm X, but one
which has been with African-American cinema since its very beginnings. Roll the clock back seven decades to the 203 and we find Oscar Micheaux, a prolific filmmaker and writer, whose career started with Circumstantial Evidence (1920) and continued through the 30s and 40s until Betrayal (1948), with a staggering 45 films and shorts in between. Micheaux’s method of finance for his films was to travel around American provincial cinemas with his script in the spring to raise
8 The List 26 February-«l l March 1993
i had to rely heavily on money not from § investors but from lenders, who would : happily have parted Van Peebles from his kneecaps had Sweetback not been 7 a box office success. Unfortunately, Hollywood saw the money that
. Sweetback pulled in and quickly
3 flooded the market with a tidal wave
‘ central black anti-establishment
l character and twisted him into a hard-
Ossle Davis and Sidney Poitier, and directors like Gordon Parks and Jamaa Fanaka - but overall most of the films were controlled, funded and produced by whites.
How we have a whole host of African- American filmmakers, cameraman,
: technicians, producers et al, l of films that turned the whole ethic on i ' its head. The studios took Van Peebles l
collectively kicking down the doors of Hollywood and getting their own message across: Robert Townsend, Euzhan Palcy, Mario Van Peebles (son of Melvin), Ernest Dickerson, John
funds, which he would then use to put agent/renegaﬂe COP/900d 9"! “Wing Singleton and Keenen Ivory Wayans to
hesitation on the part of the large studios to put funding and time into Black films. Malcolm X has merely scratched the surface of a host of worthy Black historical and political figures who could grace the silver screen and somewhat redress the balance, filling the void left by Hollywood in its depiction of the African-American people in history. But Hollywood being Hollywood, more money and more films depends on Malcolm X’s box-office, not critical,