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Spike Lee's Hot Potato. Director Treads Carefully With 'Malcolm X'

FILMMAKER Spike Lee keeps up a furious schedule, whether teaching a semester of African-American film at Harvard University, finishing post-production work on a movie of Malcolm X's life, or overseeing his marketing empire. He's constantly on the move. With the Malcolm X project, Mr. Lee has the delicate task of presenting the Islamic religion to filmgoers. The Sunni Muslim leadership, who in the 1960s was approached by Malcolm X to legitimize his brand of American Islam, are cooperating with Lee. They recognize that his film may affect how people view their faith. Cairo-based writer Carol Berger caught up with Lee and his film crew in late January, during his several-day shoot in that city. The filming of "Malcolm X," which includes sites in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa, as well as the United States, has called up memories of Malcolm X's travels, and of the expatriate black American community that sprung up in '60s Cairo.

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THE headline in a Cairo newspaper last month read: "Malcolm X film crew converts to Islam." Thus, filmmaker Spike Lee and star Denzel Washington, both raised as Christians, found themselves - erroneously - introduced to the Egyptian public as new followers of the prophet Muhammad.

When Mr. Lee's $33 million-dollar "Malcolm X" production went on location in the Middle East, the delicate nature of Islam was not ignored. But some of the director's associates may have oversold their line on Islamic solidarity.

In fact, some members of the "Malcolm X" production had converted only weeks before filming in Islam's holiest site, Mecca, during the hajj last June. It was the first time that a commercial film crew had been granted shooting rights in Islam's most holy site. (Non-Muslims are forbidden to enter Mecca.) Lee himself was not with the crew at that time.

If some attached to the production had questionable motives, Lee was more direct. In an interview, he was candid about the religion question: "Most black [American] people are Southern Baptists. I only went to church when I went down South to visit my grandmothers. I have always been honest about [my views on] organized religion. There's a difference between religion and spirituality. It comes down to a personal choice."

Asked by several Cairo-based journalists about the conversion of members of his film crew who shot footage in Mecca, his first response ended in a great roar of laughter: "Robert De Niro gained 80 pounds for 'Raging Bull. He added, more seriously, "I have the utmost respect for the religion of Islam." Later he continued, "It's no joke. You can't mess up. It's not just Islam; look what they did to Martin Scorsese - they wanted to hang him for 'The Last Temptation of Christ.


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