Spike Lee on Malcolm X
So busy he's handling a dozen interviews at the same time, Director Spike Lee shared his thoughts about the new Malcolm X: Special Edition 2-Disc DVD with DVDTalk.com.
The new DVD (Feb. 8, Warner Bros.) has all the special features that were conspicuously absent from the first version, with a wonderful commentary, 10 deleted scenes with introductions by Lee, a Making of Malcolm X feature, "By Any Means Necessary," and the 1972 Academy Award-nominated Malcolm X documentary.
During a conference call, Lee cleared up a few misconceptions (he says he never said white directors can't do black films, he just thought Norman Jewison wasnt the right director for Malcolm X); praised the contributions of the prominent black Americans (Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan) who helped out financially when the film went over budget; extolled the virtues of DVD (as long as his work doesn't go direct-to-DVD anytime soon); and reiterated that he believes it most certainly was not the FBI that killed Malcolm X. "The Nation of Islam. They assassinated Malcolm X."
DVDTalk managed to sneak in a few questions during the conference call ...
DVD Talk: This DVD is coming out during Black History Month and 40 years after Malcolm X was assassinated. What do you hope today's black youth will take from this film?
Lee: Black youth can get a lot from this film. But what they need to do is read the book first, Alex Haley's Autobiography of Malcolm X. This is about how you can persevere, and it's a lesson that lives today, especially today. Both Malcolm X and Dr. (Martin Luther) King would be sick to their stomachs if they were alive today. If they were alive today, and turned BET on, it would send ‘em right back to their graves.
More than once during the commentary you wondered aloud why Malcolm X wasn't rewarded more when Oscar time came around. Which did you think was the bigger let-down: Denzel Washington not winning Best Actor, or Ernest Dickerson not being nominated for Cinematography?
I'm not the only one who thinks Denzel was robbed on that one. But there were a lot of people involved that deserve recognition. We did get two nominations, Ruth Carter for Costume Design, and Denzel (for Best Actor).
In the Making of Malcolm X feature "By Any Means Necessary," we get a good look at the challenges you and your team faced in getting Warner Bros and the bond company they hired to open up their checkbooks....
(laughs) Man, you've watched this entire DVD already!
Twice. Malcolm X was over budget...
Yeah, our nickname for the studio was The Plantation (laughs). That may have been unfair, but I don't think they understood what Malcolm X was about. Budget wasn't our issue, it was the studio and bond company.
So it's true you threw two-thirds of your own salary for Malcolm X into the project?
Actually, I think I threw it all in there.
When the movie was over budget, wasn't the travel budget almost lost?
We did lose it. Warner Bros. let the bond company (Completion Bond Company) take over the film and they came in, told everyone on salary to stop working, tried to shut it down. I said, ‘Look, there's got to be some black people with disposable income who can contribute,' and that's what we did. It was just like Malcolm X, a lesson to persevere.
Didn't they ask you to shoot the Egypt scenes on the Jersey shoreline?
The Jersey shore in January! That's what the studio suggested, but we weren't going that way. No way.
Is it true that the movie almost got an R rating instead of PG-13 for showing a younger Malcolm X snorting cocaine?
Oh, yeah, we had to make that cut, if we were going to ask people to skip school to see the movie. We knew right away that it was very important that this movie was PG-13, so as many young people as possible could see it.
Was the Rodney King footage at the beginning of the film a seize-the-moment decision?
Absolutely. It made perfect sense to me to begin this movie with this brutal beating of a man just because he was black. The first time we showed the film to ... Warner Bros. was the day of the uprising in L.A. L.A. was going up in flames while they were watching Malcolm X for the first time. It fit.
You've said it more than once that you felt a lot of pressure to get this movie right, that you can't mess up Malcolm X....
I always apply pressure to myself in my work, but this was the first time I felt pressure externally. Denzel and I were constantly reminded by other African-Americans: Don't mess this up. Everyone involved knew how important this film was. There was no need to tell them.
Some of Malcolm X's speeches in the 1972 documentary and the speeches in your movie looked nearly identical. How much did Denzel Washington prepare for this project?
He told his agent a year out that this was the only thing he wanted to work on. I love D, and I know he's won for other roles. But, to me, this was his best work, Oscar or no Oscar. The thing about Denzel's performance is that he's playing four different people. Later in the film when Malcolm is converted to Islam ... he's not Detroit Red anymore.
Tell us about the commentary, revisiting Malcolm X so many years later.
I don't usually spend a lot of time looking back at my past films. It was a great experience sitting with all these people I worked with, and going back through this fine piece of work, if I do say so myself.
The deleted scenes were a nice part of these DVDs. I especially enjoyed the scene where Malcolm X is teaching discipline to Benjamin. Was there a reason it was cut?
Three hours, 20 minutes (the running time of the final version of the film). Any time we have a film where we have time issues, (a scene is cut) not because it's not good, it's because it involves secondary characters that don't really advance the story.
Anything else about this DVD you would like to discuss?
It's an important part of American history and it has a great actor in his greatest role.
Thanks for your time, Mr. Lee.
- Chris Tribbey