"The look and feel of this film perfectly transports you back to the style of the ‘60."

A Significant Meeting of Minds

(021321) I started writing this review a few weeks after domestic terrorists stormed the US Capitol, as many of the police calmly stood by, letting white supremacists pass through barricades, allowing them to invade the entirety of the building, taking selfies with them, and then ushering them peacefully out without making many arrests. Comparing that response to months earlier in DC, when BLM protestors were met with force, instigation, angst, and brutality, well, I’ve just got a lot of feelings about the unabashed display of white power that took place on January 6. I can’t say I’m surprised, or shocked, or “this is not America.” No, this is exactly who we are and have been. It’s got me thinking about Kemp Powers’ script for One Night in Miami, which highlights the horrific state of racial affairs in 1960’s America, even for Black elites.

Based on his play of the same name, ONIM is a fictionalized tale of a true night – February 25, 1964 in Miami, Florida when rising boxing star, 22 year-old Cassius Clay, just about to announce his conversion to Islam and name change to Muhammad Ali, surprisingly beat out favorite Sonny Liston. After the fight, he famously spent the evening with his friends Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke. Powers’ story imagines what could have transpired that evening–the jokes, confessions, debates–via prolific, beautiful prose. Four Black heroes of their time, (or of all time, really) together in one space, at one time–it’s intoxicating to think what might have actually went down.

Kemp takes us back a step in the opening scenes of the film, newly written for the adaptation, illustrating the trials of each hero in 1963: young Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) suffers a crushing defeat at Wembley Stadium in London; NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) receives some of the most disgusting treatment at the hands of a Southern “gentleman;” Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) endures increasing tension over Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad’s extramarital activities with very young Nation secretaries; Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) suffers a career-low flop at the hands of racist white audiences at the Copa.

Fast forward to the night in question in 1964, Clay is on a high post-win, praying with Malcolm in the latter’s room at the famed, historic Hampton House in Brownsville, just outside of Miami. Hampton House was the place to be for Black patrons during the time, especially since Miami’s Jim Crow laws didn’t allow Black people to spend the night there, even if you were as much of a star as young Cassius Clay. Sam Cooke and his wife, on the other hand, are depicted staying at the illustrious Fontainebleu, even though only part of the hotel was designated for Black guests at the time. Eventually, Cooke and Brown meet up, heading to Malcolm’s room at the Hampton House where he has little but vanilla ice cream to serve them. All four men are on the verge of great gambles: Brown’s about to retire as one of the greatest NFL players and head to Hollywood to shoot his first film. Clay is set to announce joining the Nation of Islam and changing his name to Muhammad Ali. Malcolm X is planning to separate from the Nation of Islam and Sam Cooke has a new album in the works.

Over ice cream and soda they philosophize about the weight on their respective shoulders and the nuances of what it feels like to be Black in America. Brown underscores the distinction between light-skinned and darker Black folks, an internal oppression within their own community. But it’s the greater debate about the responsibility of Black elites that makes up the heart of the script. While Jim feels their power lies more in their ability to become financially successful, Cassius believes that with more power comes more freedom. Malcolm, however, appearing disappointed in Sam’s pandering to white audiences, believes him a “wind-up toy in a music box,” and that successful Black men of the time are detrimental, doing little to actually help the Civil Rights cause. Malcolm plays Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” as an example, lamenting that Dylan managed to write more about racism in the US in one song (as a white man) than Sam Cooke had in his entire catalog. In real life, Cooke loved “Blowin’ in the Wind,” stating this song was part of the inspiration behind his masterpiece, “A Change is Gonna Come” (though it was also about his experience being turned away from a whites-only Holiday Inn in Shreveport, Louisiana). This debate lingers between Malcolm X and Cooke for much of the latter half of the film. Is it enough that Black performers achieve some mainstream success in a white world or should they fight for more? (This question reminds me of the themes at play in the equally stunning play-to-screen adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). As Malcolm and Sam go back and forth, Kemp’s crackling dialogue reminds us at every turn we’re watching a play, but that’s not a bad thing.

Helmed by massively talented actress-director Regina King, One Night in Miami is the first film directed by a Black woman to be invited to the Venice Film Festival, which is equal parts surprising and not all at the same time. In ONIM, it’s clear we’re watching theater, but King skillfully allows welcome changes of period-gorgeous scenery just when we feel we may need them–the glamorous pool and quiet rooftop of Hampton House, a convenience store, a raucous bar. The look and feel of this film perfectly transports you back to the style of the ‘60s. But it’s her talent directing fellow actors that’s really the showcase here–she knows how to secure amazing performances and gets four stellar ones here, not to mention fine moments from Lance Reddick (one of the best parts of the John Wick franchise), Joaquina Kalukango as Betty X, Nicolette Robinson as Barbara Cooke, and Michael Imperioli (Christopher on The Sopranos). Eli Goree as soon-to-be Ali is pretty terrific – he manages to make good use of the cleverly-written dialogue, matching Muhammad Ali’s distinctive speaking style. Meanwhile Aldis Hodge as Brown is luminous and leading-man material. But I had the strongest emotional responses to Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X and Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke.

The film feels like a door opening, one in which the audience catches a glimpse of what might have been, what these men might have truly been like on the inside, which is just enough to inspire you to learn so much more about all four of them. If you’re watching One Night in Miami looking for a historically accurate biopic, this isn’t quite it, and that’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be. It’s a beautiful fantasy of a night in which four heroes come together before spinning out again into their different orbits. Jim Brown became a successful actor (he went on to act in over 50 movies and television shows); Cassius Clay became the larger-than-life Muhammad Ali as we know him today; Sam Cooke recorded “A Change is Gonna Come,” a song that would become critical to the Civil Rights Movement prior to his death in 1964; and Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam, founding both the Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. While America today is still fractured, I hope One Night in Miami inspires audiences to learn more about these four men, who, each in their own way, paved the way for change to come.

Directed by:     Regina King
Written by:     Screenplay by Kemp Powers, based on his stage
 play of the same name
Starring:     Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge
Released:     010821 on Amazon Prime
Length:     114 minutes
Rating:     Rated R for language throughout

Review © 2021 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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