Spike Lee Reflects on Winning the Fight to Make His Masterpiece, Malcolm X at 30

Spike Lee Reflects on Winning the Fight to Make His Masterpiece, Malcolm X at 30 ...

Spike Lee, a writer, producer, and filmmaker, entered the 1990s hot. After his 1989 film Do the Right Thing, he started the decade with the stunning jazz film Mo Better Blues (1990) and kept up the pace with 1991's provocative, furious, and hilarious Jungle Fever. He took a break from Universal to direct a film with Alex Haleys, the studio that had held the rights to a project he had studied since he was a film student.

When Lee was at NYU, he was more than ready and determined, and in the fall of 1991 he spoke out against the idea in the press. His boldness attracted criticism, but it also got him a meeting with Jewison and producer Marvin Worth.

Spike Lee poured everything he knew about cinema, politics, behavior, and culture into a 201-minute Molotov cocktail of epic filmmaking, confirming Lee's genius yet his most self-effacing work to date in its humility before the subject.

Some of the film's rage and rage came from the circumstances in which it was shot. Lee had a much less harmonious connection with Warner Bros. employees than he had at Universal, and there were numerous debates over the length of the film that culminated in a time when the bond company shut down the film and took it out of Lee's hands. The filmmaker stayed to his guns, channeling the same fiery determination that defined his subject.

Warner Bros.

Spike Lee spoke with IndieWire on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the film.

For clarity, this conversation has been condensed and edited.

IndieWire: I just reread your book on Malcolm X's development, and it seems like you were fighting resistance and obstacles every step of the way, from the studio to various groups and other individuals who had their own, very different, opinions on what a Malcolm X film should be. How do you make a fantastic movie with all of this coming at you?

Spike Lee: Yes, you have to keep moving forward. I knew there would be people and groups who would oppose me as the writer and director, and I understood that Malcolm X was one of the most undeniable heroes of the film. [Producer] Marvin Worth had been in the fight for decades earlier, and is truly one of the unsung heroes of the film. He had purchased the rights from Alex Haley decades before, and is a filmmaker's father.

Warner Bros.

Everyone knew that the budget that had been approved was not enough to get us through production, but not to finish. It was not a surprise to everyone. Marvin and I still believed we should move forward, the thought being that there is no such thing as half-pregnant. But everyone knew that something terrible would happen. That day came when the bond company sent registered letters to everybody in post-production, including my great, great editor Barry Brown.

What were the circumstances that led up to that?

The intention was to shoot in the fall, then go on vacation for the holidays, and then go to South Africa and Egypt. Right before the holidays, the bond company and Warner Bros. came with suggestions to lower the budget. They wanted to shoot on the Jersey shore in January, but instead of shooting in the Sahara Desert, they wanted to shoot on the Jersey shore in January, which was ridiculous. On the flight from Cairo to Johannesburg, there was a bomb threat, so we had to land in Nairobi. We were delayed for four or five

Warner Bros.

We returned home and continued to cut, and the day after Rodney King's verdict was the day we showed them the first cut of Malcolm X and L.A.'s in flames. It was surreal to watch them watch them through the entire thing, and it would have been entirely understandable if they said, Spike, you know what's going on. We have to give them respect.

Warner Bros. always thought it needed to be three hours. I knew when we shot that Oliver Stone had JFK coming out, and I called him and asked him, How long is JFK? He replied, Spike, yes, but dont tell em I said so! I needed that time to demonstrate the character's evolution and all of the roles he played.

Warner Bros.

So how did you regain control of your life?

I had already put in a million dollars of my own salary into the film, and I knew some Black people who got paid, and I had their telephone numbers. What was tricky was that if I asked for money they would not receive a share of the film, and it would not be a tax write-off. I got on the subway, knocked on the door, and he said, no, I will come back. I gave him a hug and ran to the bank with the check.

Peggy Cooper Cafritz, Janet Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, and Prince all gave. After Magic there was one more person on the list, and that was Michael Jordan, who I owe nothing to the film. Then on Malcolm Xs birthday we held a press conference announcing that all of these great, great African-Americans had contributed to the film.

Warner Bros.

As a two-hour film, it's unthinkable. You'll need that hugeness, like Lawrence of Arabia.

It's funny that you mention Lawrence, because Ernest Dickerson, who shot all of my films before going back to NYU until he became a fine filmmaker himself with Juice, and I are both big David Lean followers. During pre-production, we were filming Lawrence of Arabia at the Ziegfeld, and Ernest and I went to see it. That's why we opened the film with that long crane shot. We were laying the groundwork!

Do you believe that all of the difficulties in the film woven their way into the film's DNA, and gave it some of the power and force that it has?

Here's the thing: I was not naive. I knew that this would not be easy. It'd be tough just to mentally and physically execute it, even with all the other BS. But I was prepared for the task. Everyone in front of and behind the camera knew the stakes, but we were not gonna give up. We knew what the deal was. We didnt have to talk about it.

This article was published as part of the IndieWires 90s Weekspectacular. Visit our 90s Week page for more information.