There's a war of words going on between two cultural pacesetters.

On one side is filmmaker Spike Lee, who is scheduled to start a long-awaited movie on Malcolm X in mid-September. On the other side is writer and activist Amiri Baraka, who is afraid Lee will exploit the life of the Black Muslim leader, taint his legacy and distort the history of a whole activist era.

"I was distressed he was taking up Malcolm and feared Malcolm would get the same treatment he had given the rest of black nationalism," said Baraka in a telephone interview from his home in Newark. "Malcolm X's life is not a commercial property. It can't be claimed by a petit bourgeois Negro who has $40 million."

And Lee, in reply in the Amsterdam News: "I'm gonna make the kind of film I want to make. ... And who appointed Baraka chairman of the African American arts committee? Nobody tells him what poems and plays to write, so why is he trying to tell me what kind of film to make? He can write whatever he wants and I want the freedom to make my films." Lee also wants Baraka to know that Warner Bros. gave him only $25 million for the movie.

This is the first time a critic with the prestige of Baraka has publicly taken Lee to task, charging him with misinterpreting contemporary black life in his five films.

Baraka, 56, the eloquent essayist and political theorist, has been a key figure in America's cultural life since the 1950s, when he emerged as part of the New York avant-garde. By 1964, when he won an Obie for his play "The Dutchman," Baraka was one of the principal voices in the development of the new black aesthetic. Influenced by Malcolm X, Baraka became a black nationalist and changed his name from LeRoi Jones. In addition to a prodigious output of writings and his stature as a professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Baraka, who adopted international socialism in the mid-1970s, also has been a leading voice for black community and political organizations for the past quarter-century.

Lee, 34, is the most talked-about filmmaker of his generation. His success at exploring racism, hatred and black mores has inspired a collective of black male filmmakers. And made Hollywood pay attention to them. From his maiden commercial film "She's Gotta Have It" to this year's "Jungle Fever," Lee's work has sparked controversy and attracted attention, beginning with disputes over the films' receptions at prestigious festivals such as Cannes. He has also introduced new black and white actors and popularized phrases and slogans such as "Do the Right Thing."

What is unknown is how Lee will approach the complex life of Malcolm X. Denzel Washington will play Malcolm, but the rest of the cast has not been announced. Lee, who has discussed the controversy in New York newspapers and on two New York radio talk shows, was not available for this story. One of the ironies of this dispute is that Lee last year bitterly criticized Norman Jewison, then the director of the Malcolm X project, saying the film shouldn't be in the hands of a white director.

One of the underlying concerns about Lee's interpretation can be traced to the film's rocky evolution. Efforts to make a Malcolm X movie have been stalled and abandoned for 24 years. James Baldwin, Arnold Perl, David Bradley, Charles Fuller, David Mamet and Calder Willingham all worked on scripts. Besides Jewison, Stuart Rosenberg, Sidney Lumet and even Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy have been involved in Malcolm X efforts at various times.

What is definite is that the project is bound to be controversial because of Malcolm's various meanings to a spectrum of people. As he rose to leadership in the black community in the late 1950s and '60s, Malcolm X represented an uncompromising black manhood, strong black nationalism, eloquence of anger and love and a counterpoint to black leaders who seemed too eager to work with the government. His writings and philosophy have been undergoing a renaissance among young blacks and whites drawn to his charisma through speeches, rap songs and documentaries.

Marvin Worth bought the rights to "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" from its co-writer, Alex Haley, and Malcolm's widow, Betty Shabazz, in 1967. In 1972, Worth produced a documentary on Malcolm's public life, which was nominated for an Oscar. Never abandoning the idea of a feature film, he is Lee's producer. "There is always trepidation" before a project starts, says Worth. "I would like to see the camera start turning."

Worth, the producer of "Lenny" and "The Rose," says Baraka's complaints are just nervousness. "That is not based on a fact of any kind. I don't see that {criticism} or I wouldn't have gone with Spike Lee. ... I feel Malcolm has been misunderstood. I don't even know if my point of view will get on the screen."

This exchange between Baraka and Lee is more than a clash between generations or approaches. It's a fight over cultural purpose and racial allegiance. Art should have a social function, Baraka and others argued in the 1960s and '70s. Lee has said he doesn't set out to "solve all the problems" of the black community in his material, but he does emphasize that he is making a statement and trying to examine issues that other filmmakers might find too explosive.

Lee says Baraka is attempting censorship. "I fully understand everybody's concern on how Malcolm X will be portrayed, how the Honorable Elijah Muhammad will be portrayed. I have the same concerns they have. At the same time this is not a documentary film. This is a narrative film. ... I don't know any film that is worthwhile that has been made by a committee," he said in an interview on radio station WLIB in New York.

"I would agree with Spike on that," says Haley, who provided the literary spring for most of the treatments on Malcolm X. "I think if I were making a film or if Baraka was making a film we would like to make the film we had in mind. That is a matter of artistic freedom. My concern is, if you are going to attack Lee, attack him after, not before."

As far as the Malcolm project goes, Lee said in the Amsterdam News, "I will make the best film I know how. There will be no input before we shoot; it is not up for community approval. If they want to know how I will deal with Malcolm, they can wait and pay their seven-fifty. Then they can criticize all they want."

In their work, both Lee and Baraka have paid homage to Malcolm's ideas and words. One of the chapters of "Uplift the Race," the companion book to Lee's second feature, "School Daze," is titled "By Any Means Necessary," the most-repeated quote from Malcolm. At the end of "Do the Right Thing," Lee used quotes from Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr. His selection from Malcolm: "I don't even call it violence when it's in self-defense; I call it intelligence."

In a 1965 essay, "The Legacy of Malcolm X, and the Coming of the Black Nation," Baraka wrote, "Malcolm was killed because he wanted to become official, as, say, a statesman. Malcolm wanted an effective form in which to enrage the white man, a practical form. And he had begun to find it. ... The legacy of Malcolm X is that we know we can move from where we are."

The criticism of Lee first surfaced earlier this month when Baraka and the United Front to Preserve the Legacy of Malcolm X and the Cultural Revolution, formed just for this occasion, delivered a letter to Lee and then distributed it to several news organizations.

"Our distress about Spike's making a film on Malcolm X is based on our analysis of the films he has already made. Their caricature of Black people's lives, their dismissal of our struggle and the implication of their description of the Black nation as a few besieged buppies surrounded by an irresponsible lumpen is disturbing to the group," said the letter.

The next week, Lee replied and pointed out in the Amsterdam News that he was 8 years old when Malcolm X was killed in New York in 1965. The filmmaker was then Shelton Jackson Lee. "Baraka was LeRoi Jones, then living with a white woman in Greenwich Village, and only went running to Harlem after Malcolm was dead. I was 8; what's Baraka's excuse?"

Baraka's reply: "This is a cry of a person who cannot defend himself. ... For him to treat my life like that suggests he is defenseless."

The two artists, according to both, have been at odds since Lee rejected an article by Baraka that Lee had solicited for his new book, "Five by Five." Baraka says, "I told him I didn't want to do it. He didn't know what I thought about his films. Sure enough, I wrote an essay about all of his films and he didn't like it because it was critical. He sent it back and sent me a kill fee with it." But Baraka has attacked what he labels as Lee's participation in a "retrograde" movement. "To me he represents the same trend of Tom Sowell, Clarence Thomas, Walter Williams. He is able to manipulate popular imagery better than they can," says Baraka. Another undercurrent here is that Baraka's daughter, Lisa Jones, has worked with Lee and is credited as the co-author of three of Lee's books on his movies.

In its analysis of Lee's previous films, Baraka's committee observed, "Just as we were told that 'Do the Right Thing' would deal with the Howard Beach lynching and 'Jungle Fever' would focus on Yusef {sic} Hawkins' murder. But 'Do the Right Thing' reduced the Black Liberation Movement to a comic burlesque demanding black flicks in a pizza parlor led by the bugged out." In response Lee says he never promised to make a film about Howard Beach, John Coltrane or Hawkins. "I have always tried to make entertaining films but at the same time there is some substance to them and it is not just fluff," Lee said on WLIB.

Malcolm X, who grew up in Lansing, Mich., spent part of his teenage years in New York and Boston and became a hustler and pimp. When he was 20, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for burglary. In prison, he converted to the Nation of Islam; after his release in 1952, he rose through the ranks and became a national spokesman for Elijah Muhammad. In 1964 Malcolm split from the Nation and started to preach that a coalition of blacks and whites could work together through Islam. He was publicly called a "hypocrite" by Muhammad and his ministers. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. Three black men were convicted of homicide.

Haley, who has not been involved in any of the film projects, says he turned down a seven-figure offer this year to do a biography of Malcolm. He says he knew the headaches it would bring from all the different Malcolm factions and therefore sympathizes with Lee. "You would be interviewing across the spectrum and people would be telling you, 'You have to squash that, emphasize that.' I had the desirable position of working with the subject. He came and interviewed with me two or three times a week for a year. He told me the story as he interpreted it."

It is a tremendous, dramatic story, points out Haley. "I don't know if I ever knew a man who was more tender to his wife and children. On the other extreme was the guy who was fearless, who said whatever, who stood his ground and forced people to respect it. He used to say, 'I have been a part of all I have been.' He was formidable, smooth, calculating. While he was at his peak outside, hardly anybody knew that inside the Nation he was having real solid trouble in his base. It is a powerful drama and I hope a film would capture that, no matter who made the film."

Haley says that Malcolm would have admired both Baraka and Lee. "Their macho-ness, their man-ness, their balls. They are the kind of aggressive people in pursuit of wanting the black thing to be dramatic, to be noticed, to be respected," says Haley.

Listening quite skeptically to the recent exchanges is David Bradley, author of "The Chaneysville Incident," who was involved with producing a script on Malcolm for three years. "It is hard to see it as anything but posturing," he says of the Lee-Baraka dust-up. "The basic question is, Is the film going to do justice to someone I think was the most important figure in this half of a century. I am afraid because I don't see Spike Lee doing that kind of historic treatment. The Baldwin script is not particularly historic because it was written when it didn't need to be. Spike Lee's value is to talk about what other people don't want to talk about, to get to the heart of the issue," says Bradley.

When Jewison, the director of "A Soldier's Story" and "In the Heat of the Night," was named as the director of a Malcolm X project in 1990, Lee was outraged.

"I have a big problem with Norman Jewison directing 'The Autobiography of Malcolm X,' " Lee said at the time. "That disturbs me deeply, gravely. It's wrong with a capital W. Blacks have to control these films." In a telephone interview, Worth said he did not want to revisit this chapter in the story's evolution. "Norm is a friend of mine. This argument, should a black director direct white films, should a white director direct black films, doesn't get us anywhere," says Worth.

Baraka says Lee's attack on Jewison was misleading. "When Spike was wrestling the film from Norman Jewison, he took what was interpreted as a black nationalist line but the nationalism he showed was the same kind of nationalism any bourgeois has. He is trying to secure his market. It is just like saying only black people can sell chitlins."

Jewison left the project in November and Lee became the heir apparent. He is rewriting what Worth says is his favorite script, the one Baldwin and Perl wrote in the late 1960s and eventually published as "One Day When I Was Lost."

Baraka says part of his criticism stems from what he believes was a distortion of the Muslim character in "Do the Right Thing." He says "look at Radio Raheem. ... Lee quotes that he likes to pay tribute to imagery. ... This Radio Raheem has love on one hand, hate on the other. Am I going to believe Elijah Muhammad is going to be a Radio Raheem. Am I not going to believe Malcolm X wouldn't be Radio Raheem who was then killed for playing his radio too loud. That is what racist America would like to believe, that black youth are killed because of something they did."

Baraka says he does not want Malcolm X sanitized or distorted.

"Malcolm X's life was a real life. I do not want to see Malcolm's Detroit Red days emphasized. They should be made to the exact proportion that they existed. I do not want to see the relationship with Elijah Muhammad de-emphasized. It was a critical and important influence and the film should show at what point they differed."

Bradley sees a larger problem in the film's fate. "Is America going to be ready for a Muslim hero in the wake of Desert Storm? We are talking about a kind of hero that comes out of a religious and philosophical context that we are expected to reject," says Bradley. The film, he says, would have to bring Malcolm back to life. "He will give the 'Ballot and the Bullet' speech and it is real again. The Hollywood people wanted to do a film about someone who was not Malcolm X, who was not antisemitic. ... This is what Baraka is talking about; they don't want the internal process. They are comfortable with a person going against an object, battling cancer, keeping the family together. If they can't see how to film it, they don't want to do it."

For this project, Lee says, he has been researching for a year. "We have been talking to people who were there with Malcolm. Now that we are doing the film people are coming out of the woodwork. I get 20 calls a day in my office from someone saying they were Malcolm X's bodyguard. If he had that many bodyguards, he would still be alive today," Lee said on WLIB. "Still I maintain that I am an artist and all final decisions will be mine."

And that probably won't be the last word from Lee or Baraka.