Spike Lee Wades Through A Firestorm Of Controversy To Complete His Film About The Black Leader, And To Do It His Way -- Malcolm

That excerpt from his journal is vintage Spike Lee - contentious, confrontational, colorful, colloquial, controversial.

And while he comes across as angry and disparaging, he also is - let's face it - pretty funny. And that's Spike Lee to a T.

The wry grin behind much of what Lee says for publication doesn't translate into print. When Lee comes out with something deliberately outrageous or provocative, something uncommonly blunt, something he knows is going to get attention and possibly get him in trouble with certain powers that be, he often can't help but break into that grin.

Lee, the prominent filmmaker, racial and commercial spokesman and gleeful gadfly, makes films that are loaded with good-humored but piercing jabs at the foibles of his characters: blacks, whites, Jews, Koreans, Puerto Ricans, whatever.

But the media often fail to pick up on Lee's purposefully antagonistic yet playful sense of humor.

In person and in his movies, Lee likes to playfully prod his audience to question their assumptions about the racial, cultural and social issues he raises. He has the rare ability to make you think, make you uncomfortable and make you laugh - at the same time.

But particularly after "Do the Right Thing," Lee himself became the focus of attention. Everybody wanted to know his position on things, particularly on race relations.

"I'm a spokesman now," Lee, now 35, said about the time of the 1989 release of "Do the Right Thing." "Any time anyone receives any type of celebrity status, they're asked to speak about things. . . ."

Lately, he's been asked to speak about the riots last month in South Central Los Angeles, and the fear among much of the Hollywood community that his upcoming film "Malcolm X," due in November, could stir more racial unrest.

"If anything is going to spur violence in the coming summer months it will be the U.S. government, the politics of George Bush and eight years of Reaganomics," Lee said last month. "I don't have to tell anyone in South Central to pick up a brick and throw it through a window. They know how to do it by themselves," he said.

So Lee continues to speak out. But he doesn't offer cut-and-dried solutions, just poses some provocative questions.

"My films let people make up their own minds," he said. "I don't have the answers."

That's why he ended "Do the Right Thing" with contradictory quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Lee views his public role in a similar way: He's not telling people what to think; he's just trying to spur them to respond to the issues, to spark debate.

"Malcolm X," which star Denzel Washington said (tongue in cheek?) last month would not be the most controversial movie of the year but "the most controversial film of the decade," has again stirred debate.

Actor and activist Ossie Davis, an associate of Malcolm X's and featured performer in Lee's "School Daze," "Do the Right Thing" and "Jungle Fever," wrote in an introduction to Lee's 1988 book "Uplift the Race: The Construction of `School Daze' " of similarities he saw between Lee and Malcolm X.

"Spike himself is independent, both in thought and action," Davis wrote. "He doesn't give much of a damn for Hollywood's opinion of himself or of his works. But he is perfectly willing to use Hollywood money - why not? Spike is first and foremost a damn good businessman, tough as nails! But that's about as close as he will allow Hollywood to come. Leave me the check, go home, and wait till I send for you. That's Spike's attitude, reminding me of Malcolm X a little."

Lee dismisses such comparisons while maintaining that he's the right man for the job of bringing "Malcolm X" to the screen. But his much-publicized battles to make "Malcolm X" his way - with a $33 million budget and a three-hour running time - bear out Davis' characterization of him as a tough businessman.

Indeed, it's Lee's character, as much as that of the slain civil rights leader, which is at the center of much of the "Malcolm X" controversy.

When the film was in development at Warners with Canadian director Norman Jewison and African-American writer Charles Fuller ("A Soldier's Story") attached, Lee said a black filmmaker could best tackle the project.

Jewison was not politically correct as far as Lee was concerned. Hearing about Jewison's plans, Lee hijacked them. "Only a black can do this film," Lee said. "No white in the world can appreciate being a black. So no white director can do a good job on Malcolm X.

"Nobody can say that Martin Scorsese's Italian background cannot but help him make films like `GoodFellas' or `Raging Bull,' " Lee argues.

But once Lee took the reins on "Malcolm X" and began rewriting the 1969 screenplay by James Baldwin and Arnold Perl, African-American writer Amiri Baraka began leading the opposition.Baraka considers Lee's films "cartoons" and criticizes his "middle class" sensibilities. Lee has responded that Malcolm X went through many permutations and that he will try to show as many of them as he can in what he has always said would be a three-hour film that would cost around $30 million.

The completion bond company that took over financing of "Malcolm X" after it went over budget is pressing for a 2-hour 15-minute final cut. Lee claims the studio's earlier budget limitations were unrealistic. "When they look at myself, Denzel Washington, and `Malcolm X,' that is not the same way they look at `JFK,' Oliver Stone and Kevin Costner, " Lee said last month. "They're not going to spend the same amounts as they do on the white boys."

The disputes surrounding "Malcolm X" have only begun. We can look forward to many more examples of Lee's tenacity and pointed wit in the coming months. After all, "Malcolm X" is now "A Spike Lee Joint," as the credits say in all his movies. And, as always, Lee is determined to make it his way.

Material from the Scripps Howard News Service and Reuters is included in this report.