The temperature was below freezing. It was one of those Chicago winter days when the sky comes up slate gray and the sun never appears.
I was one of a group of reporters and photographers who were all huddled against the wind at the entrance to the old Chicago Coliseum. We were waiting for the doors to open so we could get inside to cover the Black Muslim convention.
For blocks around, the streets were lined with police cars. Trouble was anticipated. Threats had been made to assassinate Elijah Muhammad, the Black Muslim leader.
Just the week before, Malcolm X had been shot to death while speaking to his followers in the Audubon Ballroom in New York's Harlem.
"You reporters who go inside the Coliseum today will be on your own," the police commander said through his bullhorn. "There will be no police presence inside. The Black Muslims have demanded they be allowed to police the hall themselves."
I could hear people all around me begin to moan. The hostility of the Black Muslims toward the press was well-known. It was an easy thing to cover the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We were all on the same side. But the Black Muslims were a different breed of cat. They went out of their way to show their hostility.
Malcolm X had once been Elijah Muhammad's right-hand man and his baddest dude. But they broke after Malcolm publicly accused Elijah of molesting young girls and of using money raised from his followers to live in luxury in his mansion on Chicago's South Side.
The charges Malcolm X made about Elijah were true. It was just not the politically correct thing to say at the time.
After Malcolm's death, threats had been coming out of New York all week. Old Elijah, it was promised, was going to be shot the same way Malcolm X was if he dared to show his face at this convention. Back then, in February 1965, we didn't know who had killed Malcolm X. But Malcolm's followers blamed it on Elijah. They were right. Eventually, three of Elijah's followers were convicted of using a sawed-off shotgun and two pistols to do the job.
I was pretty new in the business. In those days, I believed that when threats were made, they would probably be carried out. I know better now.
The Black Muslims assigned to guard the Coliseum certainly believed the threats. They were both angry and frightened. I have always found this to be a volatile combination. They acted as though they believed one of us white newspaper reporters had actually been hired to kill Elijah. They put each of us through a thorough body search before allowing us inside the building.
Many of the reporters refused to be searched. They remained outside the building with the police.
The search was harder on the photographers. They had to open up their camera bags. Some of them lost rolls of film. Several claimed that cameras were stolen. Those were not friendly times.
Once inside, we were hustled into a roped-off area. It consisted of half a dozen rows just below the speaker's platform. I felt like we had been placed in a pen. I soon understood why.
One of the first speakers was Louis Farrakhan, then on the rise as Malcolm X's replacement.
"You see the white devils of the press down here before me," Farrakhan said. "In their midst is a black traitor who has betrayed us this past week. He is responsible for a series of lies in the Chicago Daily News."
The Daily News had sent a black reporter underground. He had written an explanatory series about the Black Muslims. They didn't think the series was favorable. They were right. It wasn't. But there wasn't much favorable to say about Elijah Muhammad and his Black Muslims in those days. The crowd went wild. People began rushing toward us. I couldn't believe this was happening. Suddenly, a group of black security men grabbed the black reporter and hustled him out of the building to safety.
They never intended to hurt him. They merely wanted to arouse the crowd. Farrakhan had been Malcolm's protg. It was he who had sent the message to temples all around the country:
"The die is set, and Malcolm shall not escape . . . such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death."
The crowd was stimulated. It applauded mightily as the so-called Fruit of Islam, the security guards for Elijah Muhammad, marched down the center aisle.
Each man was more than six feet tall. Each wore a scowl, a dark suit and a pillbox hat. They all lined up across the front of the stage to provide a target that would take the bullet for Elijah. One of the guards, I noticed with surprise, was Muhammad Ali. Old Elijah appeared moments later. He was so tiny, it was hard to see him behind the speaker's platform and the microphone.
"He tried to make war against me," Elijah Muhammad said. "Malcolm got what he was preaching."
He spoke for two hours. He castigated Malcolm X as a traitor. And then he talked about spaceships that would eventually transport black people to safety. There was a lot of talk about blue-eyed devils.
That was a long time ago. There is a lot I don't remember. One thing that sticks in my mind, however, is that after Elijah Muhammad's speech, there were demonstrations inside a boxing ring showing how to kill police dogs.
@body:I watched Spike Lee being interviewed by Larry King the other night. He was hyping Malcolm X, the movie that opens today.
For this film about a former pimp, street hustler and convict, director Lee has spent $35 million on a film that runs as long as Gandhi or JFK.
Not content with his $3 million fee for directing the film, Lee has also opened two boutiques in Los Angeles to sell his own line of caps and tee shirts with X logos.
We have all seen King interviewing George Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. He played the role of the toady to all of them. Why should it be any different with Spike Lee?
It wasn't. King seemed afraid to say anything that might offend the successful young black director.
Spike Lee has pumped himself up so much about his Malcolm X film that everyone is now convinced that this is his package as totally as Citizen Kane was the creation of Orson Welles.
This is far from the truth. Lee is just another clever hustler who forced himself in on a project that has been in the works for decades.
The first script was written by James Baldwin at the urging of Marvin Worth, a white man who had been Malcolm's friend. Worth was the producer of Malcolm X, although you never hear his name mentioned. He was also the producer of Lenny, the film about the comic Lenny Bruce that starred Dustin Hoffman.
Worth was about to begin filming the project with Denzel Washington as star and Norman Jewison as director.
It was at this point that Lee began lobbying to force Jewison out because he was a white man. Incredibly, Lee succeeded. Jewison's credits in films about black subjects include A Soldier's Story, written by the black Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Fuller. Jewison also directed In the Heat of the Night, the film that represents the height of Sidney Poitier's career as an actor.
"You had to have black writers who could understand Malcolm," Lee told King. "No white writer could do that." Lee wore a diamond in his ear. There was a smirk on his face.
I thought about Jimmy the Greek and Al Campanis. They were fired from their jobs because of remarks they made about black athletes. They were labeled as racists and drummed out.
Why, I wonder, does everyone think it is just fine when Lee spews out this incredibly stupid and racist supposition that cannot be defended? Since hearing Lee make those remarks, I have read full-length articles about the making of Malcolm X in Esquire, Rolling Stone, the New York Times, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.
They all point out that Lee wrote much of the dialogue from the top of his head. He interviewed a few people and took a camera crew to South Africa to see Nelson Mandela. He decided that he would begin the movie by running the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles. There was no reason a black director was needed for the job other than that Spike Lee saw this as an incredible opportunity to make a big score.
In fact, he told King during the television interview that even actor Washington made up some of his own dialogue for Malcolm as they shot the film. Washington admits he didn't even know who Malcolm X was before he accepted the role.
Washington thinks the upsurge of Malcolm X tee shirts and baseball caps is amusing. He realizes that few people actually know anything about Malcolm.
"Half the people think the X on the cap stands for Xavier University," he told one interviewer. And yet Lee had the gall to tell King and everyone else:
"The spirit of Malcolm was speaking through Denzel on that set. You could feel it."
This spirit apparently got itself into Lee, as well. He decided which events in Malcolm's life to change for theatrical effect. He created his own set of facts which in many ways are far from the truth. The Malcolm X of this film never existed. Malcolm made it a point to use perfect English in his speeches. Spike says he decided to let him speak in street dialect so that the screen version of Malcolm would not become too distanced from the mass audience. If there is a bigger con man on the scene today than Spike Lee, I wish someone would point him out to me.
Once the hype for the film was under way, Lee demanded that publications assign black writers to interview him.
"Why not?" he told King. "Robert Redford and Jack Nicholson won't talk to anybody they don't approve."
Many publications caved in to Lee. This pleased him.
"It gave work to some black writers," he said.
We all get the impression from Lee's earlier films that he is a street kid who battled his way to the top in Hollywood. In reality, he was always quite well-off. His great-grandfather graduated from Tuskegee Institute. Spike Lee went to Morehouse College and then the NYU film school. Lee's grandmother gave him $26,000 to make his first film. He is underprivileged in the same way that Scottsdale's Steven Spielberg is underprivileged.
@body:There were strange occurrences in the life of Malcolm X that we will never understand.
Several years ago, an exhaustively researched biography was written about Malcolm by a sociology professor named Bruce Perry.
He interviewed members of Malcolm's family still living who pointed out that many of the stories Malcolm told Alex Haley about his early life weren't true.
For example, his father's house had never been set afire by the Klan. The fire was actually set by his father after the family was ordered to leave the house for failure to make payments.
His father was actually a violent man who beat his wife and children. He died when he was run over by a moving streetcar that he was attempting to board. The Klan was not responsible for his death.
Perry even hypothesizes that it was Malcolm X himself who set fire to his own home in the last days of his life. The home was owned by the Black Muslims, who were forcing him to move out because he had broken with them. Malcolm set the fire, Perry believes, and then blamed it on the Muslims. It was a reenactment of his father's attempt to blame the Klan years before.
Perry also unearthed the information that Malcolm had been a street hustler as a youth, something he never wanted his followers to learn.
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So we are left with a bloated, inaccurate version of a life that takes more than three hours to run. It must take this long, Lee assures us, because Malcolm was one of the greatest men who ever lived. And what was it that Malcolm X did?
He was a man who preached racism, who singled out the Jews as the worst of the white devils. He once rejoiced over a plane crash because so many white people were killed in it. When John F. Kennedy was murdered, he quipped: "The chickens are coming home to roost."
He was known variously as Malcolm Little, Detroit Red, Malcolm X and finally as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. He was a hatemonger who was closer to being a Prince of Darkness than a leader worthy of respect.
"It's okay to hate," he said frequently in his speeches. "Anyone who doesn't think we're teaching hate is crazy. Even the children of those white snakes will have to be liquidated."
This is Spike Lee's man of the month. No thanks.