Spike Lee on Malcolm X

By Walter Donohue | November 18, 2010
Denzel Washington in Malcolm X Faber & Faber

Spike Lee explains how his 1992 biopic of the controversial civil rights activist came together in an extract from Kaleem Aftab’s Spike Lee: That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It.

For nearly 25 years now, Spike Lee has been black America’s most prominent cultural critic.

His films tend to tackle tough subject matter and cause a stir: from the frank female sexuality of She’s Gotta Have It to the New York race riots of Do the Right Thing; the jazz scene in Mo’ Better Blues; interracial sex in Jungle Fever; and revolutionary pan-Africanism in Malcolm X.

In addition to the fiction films, there are also documentaries such as 4 Little Girls and When the Levees Broke.

Spike Lee says of his career:

“A lot of things have happened to me in my life. Some higher being looked after me – pushed me in another direction, from the place I wanted to go to where I needed to go. It was just the right time for a young African-American film-maker to break through. Fate has played a big part in my career, but you must also add talent, hard work, luck and timing. All these things contributed to my success.

I think that I was born in the right year – 1957 – and then all I went through growing up in the turbulent sixties in America.”

The period of turbulence is reflected in his film about the life and times of Malcolm X.

Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson recalls that he and Spike discussed the look of the film in pre-production. “We saw the restored version of Lawrence of Arabia. It was always one of our favorite films, but to see it on the big screen in 70mm for the first time really blew us away. The close-ups were so sharp, so immediate. We wanted to shoot Malcolm X in the same way. We knew that there was a lot of distorted history about Malcolm. We wanted people to get to know who the man really was, and we thought the best way to do that was to shoot it as a big sweeping epic. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out like that; we just couldn’t afford to shoot it that way. But what we did do was show people that Malcolm was a man; his life was a journey – there isn’t one Malcolm, there are several.” This is reflected in the movie’s structure, which splits Malcolm’s life into distinct stages. Spike says, “I don’t view his life as three stages, but as far as the structure of the film is concerned, that is the way it worked out in the storytelling.”

The narrative impacted on the visual style, reveals Dickerson. “Philosophically, what we talked about first was getting the feeling of the forties, that zoot-suit period. We went for a Technicolor feel and it was a little bit noir-ish because of the dark world that Malcolm Little was traveling in then. When he went to prison, I wanted to give him something that was really cold because all the warmth had gone from his life. It was monochromatic and balanced towards the blue side. After the met the Honorable Elijah Muhammad for the first time, that meant clarity and a sharpness of intent, so I went for a harder look. In Africa, I had a slight diffusion to show that Malcolm’s attitude had started to achieve a different feel.”

Due to the changes in style, fashion and hair texture, the film was shot in three stages. One of the first shots filmed was that which starts the movie, and at a cost of over $1 million for twelve minutes of film, it remains the most expensive day of filming in Spike’s career. Spike says of the necessity of blowing so much of the budget on the opening: “We wanted to establish the world that we are in, right away. So if you’re going to spend money, let’s do it right at the beginning, so that people know it’s going to be a big film, epic.”

Spike acknowledges a transformation took place during the making of Malcolm X. But for him it was just part of growing up: “I changed over the period, but not because of how hard it was made to make the film. It had nothing to do with the hardships of the film. It was just the whole experience of being involved in the film and seeing Denzel’s performance and seeing how the film affected people. I still like doing epics. And two more that I want to make will hopefully get done: Jackie Robinson and the Joe Louis/Max Schmeling project.”

Extract taken from Spike Lee: That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It as told to Kaleem Aftab (Faber & Faber, 2005)

Essential Viewing: She’s Gotta Have It [Buy], Do the Right Thing [Buy], Jungle Fever [Buy], Malcolm X [Buy], Get on the Bus [Buy], 4 Little Girls [Buy], Summer of Sam [Buy], When the Levees Broke [Buy]

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