This fictional account of a meeting between four powerful Black icons in February 1964 makes for a poignant, thoughtful and fascinating watch
What would have happened if civil rights leader Malcolm X, newly crowned 22-year-old world boxing champion Cassius Clay, NFL star Jim Brown and the King of Soul, singer-songwriter Sam Cooke, met on the night of February 25, 1964 to celebrate Clay’s win over Sonny Liston?
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It is this fascinating thought that forms the premise of Kemp Powers’ 2013 play, One Night in Miami. Regina King makes an assured feature debut with a film based on the play. Despite the stagey limitations, One Night in Miami makes for thrilling viewing thanks to the excellent performances and strong writing.
The movie does not make these iconic men into vanilla saints. The spotlight is fierce and honest on these men on the cusp of greatness. From Malcolm X’s (Kingsley Ben-Adir) implacability and Clay’s (Eli Goree) trash talking to their resentment for Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Brown’s (Aldis Hodge) perceived playing the white man’s game, it all comes to the fore in a series of arguments at the motel in Miami.
One Night in Miami
- Director: Regina King
- Cast: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Leslie Odom Jr., Aldis Hodge
- Duration: 110 mins
- Story line: A fictional account of a meeting between four powerful Black icons in February 1964
The movie is also a poignant reminder that two of the men, Malcolm and Cooke will be dead before the anniversary of the meeting — Malcolm was assassinated on February 21, 1965 and Cooke was shot dead on December 11, 1964.
Malcolm’s sniping at Cooke with, “Entertaining white people in the south will bring out the truculence in any black man,” and “You are a wind-up toy in a music box,” sees Cooke give back as good as he gets with, “Everybody talks about how they want a piece of the pie. Well I don’t, I want the recipe”.
When Brown tells Clay he is looking at a movie career, Clay says, “Being the sacrificial Negro ain’t the same as the NFL”. To which Brown calmly says, “We are all gladiators.” Brown displays a quiet understanding of the ways of the world when he asks Malcolm if his militancy is “about trying to prove something to the white people or the black people?” His take on racism, of white people congratulating themselves for treating black people almost like human beings is similarly acute when he says, “Do you expect a dog to give you a medal for not kicking it that day?”
King creates space and tension in what is a single-location movie by intercutting with scenes of Clay’s matches, using mirrors and top shots. Malcolm explains his pushing Cooke’s buttons only because he expects so much from him. He plays Bob Dylan’s iconic ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ in answer to Cooke’s comment that protest music does not make to the top of the charts. When he asks Cooke how a white boy from Minneapolis could be writing popular protest songs, one begins to think about the nature and boundaries of art. And anything that makes one think is definitely a good thing.
One Night in Miami is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video