Spike Lee's Malcolm X Was Decades In The Making

The 1997 book "Monster: Living Off the Big Screen" by John Gregory Dunne was required reading in film school for the better part of a decade. Dunne is the screenwriter behind "The Panic in Needle Park," the 1976 version of "A Star is Born," and the largely forgotten 1996 romance "Up Close & Personal," about which "Monster" was written. The book details the soulless process of how a screenplay gets turned into a movie over the course of many, many years, often shedding every piece of artistic daring for comfortably commercial reasons. "Up Close" took eight years to write, and the finished film has very, very little in common with the first draft of the screenplay. 

It may be unsurprising to learn that every single major Hollywood production faces similar trials and changes on their way to the big screen; feature films that are led from inception to execution by a singular, powerfully minded auteur are rare things indeed. Often films switch stars, change directors, and even move to different studios before actual shooting begins. Film rights to a book or a story can be purchased, in some cases, decades in advance of production. 

"The Autobiography of Malcolm X," written with Alex Haley, was first published in October of 1965, only six months after X was murdered. Wanting to make a film version of Malcolm X's story, producer Marvin Worth purchased the film rights to the book in 1967. 

The feature film "Malcolm X," directed by Spike Lee, wouldn't be released in theaters until November of 1992, 25 years after the initial project was first put into production.

The Spike Lee version

To briefly pause on Spike Lee's finished film, "Malcolm X" is a 202-minute epic told in three parts which follows Malcolm X from his time as a petty would-be criminal in Harlem and in Boston, through his time serving in prison where he would, thanks to a fellow inmate, learn of Islam and the depth of racial injustice, and up to his time as an activist and his eventual split from the Nation of Islam, leading to his assassination in 1965. It was the first major studio-backed film about a Black leader.

The film is expansive, frank, and exciting to watch. Lee does not play a single ponderous note, depicting the life of Malcolm X as complex just as it is capital-I important. We hang on X's words, seeing every facet of the man. Denzel Washington plays the title role, and he was rightly nominated for an Academy Award, but ended up losing to Al Pacino in "Scent of a Woman." While a biography of Malcolm X feels like surefire Oscar-bait, "Malcolm X" was only nominated for two: Best Actor and Best Costumes. This was considered a scandal at the time, and Spike Lee eventually would write a scene in the "She's Gotta Have It" TV series showing he was still angry about being snubbed by the Academy. 

Despite what the Academy says, "Malcolm X" is one of the best films of 1992. 

The James Baldwin version

The path to Lee's "Malcolm X" was long and circuitous, and several notable writers, directors, and stars were attached to the project over the decades. 

The first script for "Malcolm X," was written by no one less than James Baldwin, the writer and activist, author of "Go Tell It on the Mountain," "Giovanni's Room," and "If Beale Street Could Talk." At the time of his writing of the screenplay, however, Baldwin was drinking heavily. Additionally, he had trouble making his way through a draft because of the constant interruptions from Malcolm X's many associates in the Nation of Islam, each of whom wanted to contribute and/or make corrections. In his 1976 book "The Devil Finds Work," Baldwin would not reflect happily of his experience writing the Malcolm X screenplay: 

"I think that I would rather be horsewhipped, or incarcerated in the forthright bedlam of Bellevue, than repeat the adventure. Not that I will ever be allowed to repeat it: It is not an adventure one permits a friend, or brother, to attempt to survive twice. It was a gamble which I knew I might lose, and I lost — A very bad day at the races."

Despite the trouble Baldwin had writing it, his screenplay remained in circulation through Hollywood offices for years, with other screenwriters periodically coming in to tinker with it. Screenwriter Arnold Perl reworked Baldwin's screenplay in 1971, but by then it had become "toxic," in Hollywood parlance, and no executive was brave enough to take it off the back burner. Perl would eventually parlay his knowledge about Malcolm X into a 1972 documentary film called "Malcolm X: His Own Story as it Really Happened," which was nominated for an Academy Award. Perl died in late 1971, making the nomination posthumous. 

Other versions

After the Baldwin screenplay was more or less buried, other screenwriters would be hired to adapt X's and Haley's book, including author and screenwriter Calder Willingham, who worked on the screenplays for "Paths of Glory," "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Spartacus," and "The Graduate," which was nominated for an Academy Award. While Willingham had a respectable Hollywood career, his version of "Malcolm X" never saw the light of day. The same happened for a version that was penned by David Mamet, screenwriting firebrand and self-professed a-hole. Mamet's version can be found online, if you know where to look. There is also a screenplay by Pulitzer-winning playwright Charles Fuller ("A Soldier's Play") somewhere out there. 

Director Sidney Lumet was once attached to a version of "Malcolm X" which was to feature Richard Pryor as X and Eddie Murphy as Alex Haley. That film was, it appears, to be bookended by interview scenes about the writing of the "Autobiography." While Pryor and Murphy were still attached, director Norman Jewison ("In the Heat of the Night") took over production from Lumet. It was Jewison who brought Denzel Washington in to play the title role, as the two of them had previously worked together on the 1984 Best Picture nominee "A Soldier's Story" (incidentally, an adaptation of the above-mentioned Charles Fuller play). This was 1990.

It was looking like the Jewison/Washington film was finally advancing in production when Lee caught wind of the project. Making a biography of Malcolm X had long been a dream of Lee's, and he petitioned the studio to be brought on as director. There was already a protest at the time to remove Jewison from the project anyway, as many felt it improper that a white director should make a biography of Malcolm X. Jewison eventually also came around to that mindset and stepped away from the production, allowing Lee to step in. Lee kept Washington in the lead role, feeling he was perfect. Lee and Washington had previously worked together on "Mo' Better Blues."

Lee retrieved the James Baldwin/Arnold Perl screenplay from the back burner, where it had been sitting for over 20 years. He revised the screenplay and re-wrote portions of it himself. Because of the revisions, the Baldwin estate (Baldwin passed away in 1987) asked that his name be removed from "Malcolm X," leaving Perl and Lee as the credited screenwriters. 

Financial troubles

Once Lee became the director of "Malcolm X," however, the troubles didn't stop. In his book "By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of Making 'Malcolm X' While 10 Million Motherf***ers Are F***ing with You!", Lee wrote about how he had a notoriously difficult time bringing his version to the big screen, encountering a lack of funding from the studio, eventually having to donate $2 million of his own $3 million salary into the film's production budget. Warner Bros. — or, most specifically, the bond company that Warner Bros. was working with — made a demand that "Malcolm X" be no more than 135 minutes in length. When Lee explained that his film was going to be north of three hours, the bond company shut down production and refused any more funding.

Additionally, Lee experienced pushback from Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam at the time. His conversation with Farrakhan is detailed in the book as well. 

When word got out that "Malcolm X" might be shuttered due to lack of funds, many prominent Black celebrities stepped in with sizeable donations, among them Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, Magic Johnson, Prince, Tracey Chapman, Janet Jackson, and several others. Because Lee gathered so much support, he was able to finish "Malcolm X" the way he wanted. 

Warner Bros. ultimately "punished" Lee by removing him from the production of an upcoming blockbuster he was developing for the studio: In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Lee, as his character Mars Blackmon from "She's Gotta Have It," appeared in a series of Nike commercials with Michael Jordan. That same ad campaign would also eventually incorporate Warner Bros.' canon of Looney Tunes characters, and the resulting campaign was so successful that the studio sought to make a feature film. Lee enlisted friend and music video director Joe Pytka to make what would eventually become the 1996 feature film "Space Jam." 

Lee was not allowed to serve as executive producer on "Space Jam" after completing "Malcolm X." I would perhaps argue that was no big loss.