Spike Lee’s Malcolm X had been in the works for decades


After Baldwin’s screenplay was more or less shelved, other screenwriters were hired to adapt X and Haley’s book, including author and screenwriter Calder Willingham, who worked on the “Paths of Glory” screenplays. , “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, “Spartacus” and “The Graduate”, which was nominated for an Oscar. While Willingham had a respectable career in Hollywood, his version of “Malcolm X” never saw the light of day. The same thing happened for a version written by David Mamet, incendiary screenwriter and self-proclaimed asshole. Mamet’s version can be found online, if you know where to look. There’s also a screenplay by Pulitzer-winning playwright Charles Fuller (“A Soldier’s Play”) somewhere in there.

Director Sidney Lumet was once attached to a version of “Malcolm X” that was to feature Richard Pryor as X and Eddie Murphy as Alex Haley. This film was, it seems, to be completed by interview scenes on 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 in Denzel Washington to play the title role, as they had previously worked together on the 1984 Best Picture nominee “A Soldier’s Story” (incidentally, an adaptation of the aforementioned Charles Fuller play). -above). It was in 1990.

It looked like the Jewison/Washington movie was finally moving forward in production when Lee caught wind of the project. Doing a biography of Malcolm X had long been a dream of Lee, and he asked the studio to be named director. There was already a protest at the time to remove Jewison from the project anyway, as many felt it was inappropriate for a white director to do a biography of Malcolm X. Jewison eventually embraced this mindset as well and walked 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 picked up the James Baldwin/Arnold Perl screenplay from the back burner, where it had sat for over 20 years. He revised the script and rewrote parts of it himself. Due to revisions, the Baldwin estate (Baldwin died in 1987) requested that his name be removed from “Malcolm X”, leaving Perl and Lee as credited screenwriters.


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