Spike Lee with Ralph Wiley. By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X. New York: Hyperion, 1992.
The main author, Spike Lee, produced the movie “Malcolm X”, stating it was his desire to make this film that drove him to become a filmmaker. Lee had read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” while in elementary school. Malcolm X became his life inspiration. Malcolm X urged Blacks to respect themselves and to improve their lives. He declared that Blacks should defend themselves and have pride in what they do. Both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X had similar goals, which was to obtain rights and dignity for Blacks.
Lee began studying filmmaking as a mass communications students at Morehouse College.
Marvin Worth, who knew Malcolm X, had the film rights to Malcolm X’s life, having obtained them from Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabass, and from Alex Haley, who co-authored “The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Norman Jewison was going to direct the film for Warner Brothers. Marvin Worth wanted Lee is direct it. Lee was upset that Jewison had been selected. Letters of protest objecting to Jewison directing the film were sent to Warner Brothers. Jewison stated he didn’t like the script and withdrew from the project.
Lee believes Warner Brothers was willing to do a movie on Malcolm X only after he had been dead for awhile. His memory was not at threatening to Caucasian audiences yet many Blacks still identified with him.
Lee fears major studios only makes Black-oriented films about drug dealing or Black oriented music, such as hip hop. Lee wanted to present a different aspect of Black films could be made.
Lee points out that the studios want profits. They like earning $57 million for Lee’s “Boyz in the Hood” that cost $6 million to make. Yet, they fear venturing far from films that appeal to mainstream audiences. Lee also notes there is racism throughout society and this includes the film industry. He notes there are few Black executives who have the authority to approve which films to make. Further. Few Black films give creative control to Black filmmakers.
Lee began publicizing the movie by selling caps with an “X” on them.
Lee submitted a budget for “Malcolm X” at $38 million. Warner stated they would not approve more than $18 million. Lee left the meeting knowing he wanted to do the movie correctly and he knew it would take more than Warner was willing to approve.
James Baldwin had written the first script with Arnold Perl helping to finish the script. Subsequent scripts were written by Calder Willingham. David Mamet, David Bradley, and Charles Fuller. Lee felt the Baldwin-Perl script was the best but felt it failed to delve into the subject of the split of the Nation of Islam between Minister Louis Farrakhan, who followed the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhamed, and Wallace Muhammed, Elijah’s son, who formed the American Muslim Mission. Malcolm X’s murder resulted from the split. Malcolm X had accused Elijah Muhammed of adultery which he considered a serious sin against their faith.
Lee looked at the scripts. He rejected one that had Alex Haley as a character as Lee felt Haley was irrelevant to the story. Malcolm X’s life was the story. Lee chose the Baldwin-Perl script and had it rewritten. Lee also chose cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, who was known for taking his time to do a good job.
Lee went to Warner Brothers to attempt to convince them that “Malcolm X” deserved to be a three hour epic film. Theaters don’t like long movies and they have to have fewer showing per day to present them which means fewer ticket sales per day. As Lee put it, “let’s be honest. Hollywood is predominantly male and Jewish, and all they think is that Malcolm X was an anti-Semite who hated white people and advocated violence”. Lee sensed a lack of enthusiasm amongst Warner Brother executives for promoting this movie.
Lee notes Universal gave him more independence and was easier to work with, especially since he made them profits. Warner Brothers was more intrusive into his filmmaking. Lee wanted Warner Brothers to sell the “Malcolm X” project to Universal, and Universal wanted to buy it, but Warner Brothers refused.
Lee had a clause in his movie contracts prohibiting them from being shown in South Africa, which then practiced apartheid. Lee used a foreign rights sale to boost the budget for filming “Malcolm X”, although the price was adjusted downwards by $500,000 as the distributor was not at first aware of the South Africa clause. Warner still refused to increase the budget and insisted they would sell the foreign distribution rights.
Lee conducted his own research for the film and interviewed people in Malcolm X’s life. He also reviewed Malcolm X’s assassination. He met with Minister Farrakhan, who was concerned how Elijah Muhammed would be presented and how the assassination would be handled. Farrakhan admitted he assisted in creating the climate the contributed towards Malcolm X’s shooting but denied any involvement in the murder.
After nine months of preparation, Lee began filming the movie even though some worried he wasn’t completely ready to film. Yet, Lee felt he had momentum going for him and he wanted to keep that momentum, even if it meant shooting and planning simultaneously.
Denzel Washington, who had portrayed Malcolm X on Broadway and had a physical resemblance to Malcolm X, had been hired to portray Malcolm X before Spike Lee took the project. Washington made helpful suggestions regarding his role throughout the project. Lee was very happy with Washington’s performance.
Shooting in Peekskill, N.Y. was done for scenes representing Omaha and East Lansing, Mi. A Manhattan building was used to represent a Boston home.
Lee had to deal with personal problems during the shoots. His girlfriend broke up with him, his father was arrested for having heroin, an extra was murdered, and a car with a brick tied to the accelerator crashed onto the set. The extra’s murder was not related to the movie yet the press placed her role in the movie in their headlines. Betty Shabazz objected to the script. Protestors appeared on the set claiming Spike Lee had no right to make the film. An actor quit on him during a filming in a rainstorm at 2 am.
When the filming costs whet over budget, the Completion Bond Company threatened to take control of the shooting. Lee went to film in Cairo and South Africa in defiance of the bond company.
Spike Lee and Denzel Washington took pay cuts to get the movie finished. Lee is upset that Warner Brothers did not provide extra money to satisfy the bond company for going over budget, as they have done for many other films. The bond company was also upset when Lee stated it would take ten weeks to edit the movie. The bond company threatened that the Directors Guild would have taken over the editing from Lee, except Lee wasn’t a Guild member. Lee then went public with his desire to make a quality film rather than a rushed film. Warner Brothers was upset over the negative publicity this generated for them. A first cut deadline was met by requiring the editors to work 12 hour days, seven days a week. Fortunately, the first screening went well and the Warner Brothers executives were happy with the movie.
The movie was released in 1992. As Lee summed it up, “nothing in the world gives me the feeling I get from the cinema.”