Director Spike Lee and the widow of Malcolm X signed a licensing agreement yesterday granting Lee rights to sell merchandise bearing the likeness and name of the slain black leader, avoiding a possible confrontation.
New York attorney Lisa Davis, whose firm represented Lee in the proceedings, confirmed that the two parties signed an understanding yesterday, a day before the opening of Lee’s biopic, “Malcolm X.” She declined to elaborate on the terms of the deal.
Davis also confirmed that in addition to acting as an attorney for Lee, she also has represented Malcolm X’s widow, Dr. Betty Shabazz, in the past. This was not a conflict of interest, she contends, because in this instance Shabazz was represented by Curtis Management Group, the Indianapolis-based licensing company she hired a few months ago to police licensing activities around her slain husband (Daily Variety, Aug. 10).
Lee has been selling Malcolm X-inspired hats, T-shirts, jerseys, jackets and other merchandise tapping into the renewed interest in the 1960s civil rights leader at his Spike’s Joint boutique in Brooklyn for more than a year. But he did not have a licensing agreement with Shabazz.
With the signing of this deal, Lee has agreed to turn over a percentage of profits from sales of this merchandise to Shabazz, plus she gains a measure of control over what and how the merchandise is sold.
Earlier in the year, Curtis president Mark Roesler said he had met with Lee’s lawyers informing Lee of”our concern over his (Lee’s) use of Malcolm X without Dr. Shabazz’s permission.” The two have been in talks since.
It seems unlikely that Lee would have allowed this conflict to end up in court. That would have been a public relations disaster for the film, particularly since Shabazz acted as a consultant to the movie and is portrayed in the film. “It was always understood that this would not go to litigation,” said a source close to the negotiations.
At the opening of the Los Angeles satellite of Spike’s Joint on Melrose Avenue recently, Lee acknowledged that he and Shabazz had been in potential conflict over Lee’s rights to Malcolm X’s image and the X symbol early on, but said the matter was settled (Daily Variety, Oct. 26). That was not true since the deal was only signed yesterday.
Warner Bros. has its own program of movie-related merchandise tying into “Malcolm X,” which is just starting to show up on store shelves. There is jewelry, apparel, shoes and posters, some bearing the image of actor Denzel Washington as Malcolm, some based on the X title treatment Warners controls.
Shabazz’s hiring of Curtis Management was particularly noteworthy since Curtis is the firm that’s challenging Warner Bros. — distributor of “Malcolm X”– over the studio’s rights over products bearing the likeness of James Dean.