FILM 2021

‘One Night In Miami’ Brings Four Black Icons Into Tight Focus

The night Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Malcolm X, and Sam Cooke did not have a party

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Regina King’s One Night in Miami is a triumph, a film that will surely be looked back on as a landmark in American moviemaking. Directed by a Black woman, scripted by a Black man, and built around performances by four powerful Black actors, it’s a fine work, as well as a celebration of Black cultural history.

The night is February 25, 1964, when 22-year-old Cassius Marcellus Clay shocked the world by winning the heavyweight title — and then, the next day, with his friend Malcolm X by his side, shocked it again by announcing his conversion to the Nation of Islam and assuming the name Muhammad Ali.

After the fight, Cassius and Malcolm were joined by two other close friends, football star Jim Brown and singer Sam Cooke. King and screenwriter Kemp Powers, who adapted the script from his own stage play, bring the four together in a hotel room for what three of them think will be a party. Malcolm has other ideas; he wants a sober reflection on what their roles can be in Black empowerment.

History indeed brought those four remarkable men together that night, but it’s doubtful that such ponderous subjects were actually discussed. But no matter. Powers has tapped into what is known of their personal and public lives to present a cross section of Black consciousness in the mid-sixties, one given fresh relevance by the recent white supremacist assault on the U.S. Capitol.

Once the men reach the hotel room, the story scarcely gets outside again, except for occasional flashbacks. King never really succeeds in overcoming the limitations of the stage play; too much of the film happens in the room, and King’s placement of the actors often seems stagy and awkward. For instance, after a heated discussion between Malcolm and Sam, Cooke storms out and Cassius runs offstage — as it were — after him, setting up a scene with Malcolm and Jim Brown. But the adroit flashbacks and cutaways let air into the story and keep it moving forward. It’s fortunate, too, that the four principal actors are powerhouses, playing vividly sketched characters who propel the action.

Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X holds the film together — without his Malcolm there would be no drama or tension. Essentially, Powers’s script is about how Ali, soon to be the most famous man in the world; Jim Brown, the greatest pro football player and also an up-and-coming action-film star; and Sam Cooke, the singer who practically invented Soul, respond to Malcolm’s call for Black activism.

Ben-Adir, a British actor familiar to Peaky Blinders fans as Colonel Ben Younger, recently stood out as Barack Obama in The Comey Rule. (And an actor playing Malcolm X who is a real life convert to Judaism — who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor?) In a soft yet commanding voice, Malcolm weaves in and out of debates with the other three, each in his own way wary of committing to the Nation. Clay fears backlash from the white power structure, Brown doesn’t want to risk his newfound career as a film star, and Cooke, already the most popular singer on R&B charts, is bent on winning over white audiences in nightclubs like the Copacabana.

Ben-Adir delivers a superb, layered performance as a man under fire from all sides, spied on by the FBI and menaced by the radical elements of Elijah Muhammad’s Black Muslims, with whom he plans to sever ties. Malcolm can’t catch a breath, and when he hits a roadblock in trying to radicalize his three friends, he seems on the verge of a total breakdown. In one of the film’s best scenes, Aldis Hodge’s Jim Brown, sympathetic to Malcolm’s aims but reluctant to join with him, lifts a tentative hand that comes to rest softly on his weeping friend’s shoulder.

The main flaw in the Malcolm of One Night in Miami lies more in the script than in Ben-Adir’s performance (although his Malcolm does lack one thing — the steely character beneath the refined surface of Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X). Powers’s Malcolm is sometimes treated affectionately and sometimes less so, as a nerd, unlikely for the real man. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, as Malcolm Little, he recounted in The Autobiography of Malcolm X (co-written by Alex Haley) that several family members, and perhaps even his father, were murdered by white racists, while his mother was committed to a state hospital for nearly 25 years. Malcolm wound up in New York City, lapsing into a life of pimping, drug dealing, and petty crime. In prison for robbery, he was exposed to and then converted to the Nation of Islam. His journey from high school dropout to convict to religious leader is one of the most remarkable in modern American history, his harrowing childhood very different from that of Cassius Clay, who was raised in the black middle class of Louisville, Kentucky.

Eli Goree, a regular on Ballers and Riverdale, gives Muhammad Ali a greater screen authenticity than Will Smith in Ali, or even Muhammad himself, in The Greatest. Goree not only resembles and sounds like Ali, he also channels Ali for a couple of minutes in the ring, an element sorely lacking in the stage production. In the scene depicting Clay’s apocalyptic upset of Sonny Liston, Goree’s physical grace and fluid motion make him believable as the self-proclaimed “Greatest.”

Goree delivers his lines with the spontaneous feel of an actor reveling in the role of a lifetime (although I very much doubt that Ali ever spoke the words “philosophical debate,” either on that night in Miami or any other). Ali idolizes Brown; when Jim tells him he was paid $37,000 for his first movie role, a wide-eyed Goree responds, “Maybe I should be in a movie” (a rare slip-up in the script, as Cassius Clay had been in a movie two years earlier, Requiem for A Heavyweight, with Anthony Quinn).

During the fight scene, Hodge sits ringside doing color commentary, just as Jim Brown did that night in Miami, and it would have been nice if someone had thought to include Howard Cosell, who sat next to Brown and whose radio commentary is how many best remember the fight. The late boxing historian Bert Sugar played me a recording: In the third round, with the crowd in a frenzy, Cosell yells, ”Cash-us Clay is doing exactly what the experts said he could not do and getting away with it!

Although he had a career as an actor, Brown (who will turn 85 in February) was the least charismatic of the four. Hodge, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Jim Brown, gives an outwardly impassive but sly performance. His Brown is all for the movement, but he’s not putting his hard-won shot at Hollywood on the line for anything, even his friend Ali.

Sam Cooke, played by Leslie Odom, Jr. — sensational as Aaron Burr in Hamilton — was the wealthiest and probably the best known of the friends. In some ways, it’s the toughest role, since the producers decided against lip-syncing and so needed a skilled actor who could also approximate Cook’s singing voice and style. Odom sings with an intimacy that suggests why legendary record producer Jerry Wexler called Cooke “the best singer who ever lived, no contest.” (In 2003, critic Robert Christgau noted, “Cooke was a prodigy. He produced himself, owned his own publishing, started a successful label, and earned top dollar on the road.”)

The movie ends with Odom singing a heartrending version of Cooke’s greatest song, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” on the Johnny Carson show, with Malcolm watching on TV. We’re told in a postscript that Malcolm was murdered almost a year later. What the movie does not mention is that Cooke died several months before Malcolm, in December 1964, shot by a motel manager in Los Angeles under circumstances still unclear today.

Why is Cooke’s death not mentioned? Because the sordidness of that death clashes with the uplifting conclusion King is going for? As daring as One Night in Miami is, King and Powers curiously avoid several controversies. At the end of the film, we see the press conference where Brown announces his retirement from football to make movies; this seems hardly essential to the narrative, since we already know that he became a movie star. What we never hear about, however, are several incidents of Brown’s abuse of women.

Not a word is mentioned, either, of the maelstrom of controversy Ali created in 1967, when he refused induction into the military to protest the Vietnam War. He was stripped of his title and refused a license to box for three years.

The film’s most serious omission, though, is not addressing the break between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X after Malcolm split from Elijah Muhammad.

Malcolm had already begun to alienate the Black Muslim hierarchy through his criticism of the philandering lifestyle of Elijah, and within ten days of Ali winning the title, the Muslim leadership had blocked Malcolm’s access to the champ, who suddenly refused to take his phone calls. Ali’s failure of nerve may have sealed Malcolm’s fate; it’s doubtful that anyone would have tried to kill him if he had remained in the spotlight with the heavyweight champion.

After his murder by rogue members of the Nation of Islam, in February 1965, the Champ, probably out of fear for his own life and that of his brother Rudy, who had also become a Muslim, had no kind words for his old friend. Over the years, Ali distanced himself from the Nation’s extremists. It was nearly four decades after Malcolm’s murder when Ali publicly confessed that turning his back on his friend was the mistake he regretted most in his life, saying, “I wish I had been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things.”

“In time,” write Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith in their 2016 book Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, “Ali understood that who he was and who he had become were the results of his friendship with Malcolm. He knew that without Malcolm X, he would never have become Muhammad Ali.”

That is a great subject for another movie. ❖

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