Tuesday January 26, 2021
Movie Review: One Night in Miami (2020)
The first time I heard that Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali got together in Malcolm’s motel room on February 25, 1964, the night Ali/Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world, I thought, “That should be a play.” Kemp Powers was way ahead of me; it was first performed in 2013. Now he and director Regina King have turned his play into a movie.
And it doesn’t exactly shake up the world.
Immediate takeaways on the four leads:
- Eli Goree is good with the public, loudmouth Clay/Ali schtick, but that’s all he does. He doesn’t give us a private, quiet Ali the way Will Smith did in Michael Mann’s movie. At times I felt like I was watching a cartoon.
- Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X suffers the opposite problem. He seems small and slight, without any of Malcolm’s commanding presence.
- I don’t know if Aldis Hodge’s Jim Brown is a good characterization of Brown, since I don’t know Brown, but this guy should be a star. He’s got something. He’s intriguing in the way Tom Hardy was in “Inception.” You wonder what he’s thinking. Handsome as fuck, too.
- OK, if they don’t make the full-length Sam Cookie biopic starring Leslie Odom, Jr., I’m going to be very, very disappointed in Hollywood (for the zillionth time). He’s the right age, a good actor, and his voice is to die for. Get on it.
Cooke v. X
Basics: Behind the scenes, Malcolm prepares to break away from the Nation of Islam even as Clay is preparing to join. But does Malcolm want Clay on his side of this internecine struggle? Of course. Is he willing to ask him? Not according to Peter Goldman in his book “The Death and Life and Malcolm X”:
The night [Ali] beat Liston, Chicago telephoned him at this victory party—an ice-cream social, more accurately, in Malcolm’s motel suite—and awarded him his membership and his new name; the next morning, reborn Muhammad Ali, he confirmed his conversion to the world. Malcolm liked Ali too well to interfere in this or to involve him further in his private difficulties. When he broke with the Nation two weeks later, he counseled Ali to stay with Mr. Muhammad—and swallowed his hurt feelings when Ali took his advice.
In the movie, Malcolm asks—to not much drama. If you’re going to muck with the history, make it resonate. This doesn’t.
The movie’s main conflict is one we’ve seen many times—radical (Malcolm) vs. moderate (Sam Cooke)—and the movie doesn’t do much new with it. They make both men more extreme versions of themselves to create the conflict, then ease up for the resolution.
Malcolm is about to create a more accommodating version of himself but here he spends the evening haranguing Sam Cooke for being too accommodating. Meanwhile, they all but say Sam is an Uncle Tom. He’s staying at a ritzy hotel in the white part of town, tries to play the Copa before a hostile, white audience, and he’s criticized for singing one way before white crowds and another before Black crowds. “You Send Me” and “Sentimental Reasons” are used as punchlines. His background in the Black church? Unmentioned. His financial and organizational support for Black artists? Unmentioned until the 11th hour. At one point, Malcolm has the effrontery to play Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”—as if Sam doesn’t know his own industry or art—asking, basically, “How come you don’t do this? This white boy from Minnesota pens something that speaks more to our people than anything you’ve done. How come you don’t get involved in the movement?”
That’s when I knew where they were going. I thought: No no no no. Don’t tell me that because of Malcolm’s pointed attacks throughout the night, Sam will go off and create “A Change is Gonna Come”? Fun fact: By Feb. 25, 1964, Sam had already written, sung and recorded “A Change is Gonna Come”; it was on an LP released that month. But, yes, that’s what happens. We see it a mile off, it’s untrue, but it gives the movie its facile resolution. Oh, and they insult Jackie Wilson along the way, too.
Plus … the movement? Malcolm doesn’t care about the movement. Malcolm attacked the movement. He didn’t hold it up as something to aspire to.
At one point, during the eternal back-and-forth, I thought: “Didn’t Cassius just win the heavyweight championship of the world? Shouldn't this be a little more celebratory? Shouldn’t there be a little more celebrating?” Oddly, Clay becomes a background figure on his big night. Imagine that: Muhammad Ali, a background figure.
Brown v. Board of St. Simons
Of the four, Jim Brown’s internal dilemma is the least interesting: Should he leave the NFL for a Hollywood career? The movie makes it seem like a political decision, a radical act, when both are forms of entertainment for the masses. Jim is either entertaining in a dangerous field where he’s the best by far; or he's doing it in a cushier field where he’s kind of meh. He went meh. But he’s the only one of the four that’s still alive.
That said, the best scene in the movie is Brown’s. It’s when he visits his mother’s former employer, Mr. Carlton (Beau Bridges), in his birthplace on St. Simons Island, Ga. On the porch, he receives a hero’s welcome and lemonade is served. We keep waiting for Mr. Carlton, old, white and Southern, to stick his foot in it but he keeps saying and doing the right thing. Even when his daughter reminds him he has to move a dresser, he doesn’t ask Brown to help as if he’s some servant; he going to do it himself. Amused, Brown offers, but Carlton responds matter-of-factly: “Why, Jim, you know we don’t allow niggers in the house.”
That line is dropped like a fucking hammer. Not only does Brown not expect it, we don’t. We were expecting it, but Carlton had passed our tests and we'd dropped our guard. Excellent writing.
I like that the movie doesn’t give the Nation of Islam a pass. Malcolm and Betty reference Elijah Muhammad’s frequent affairs with his teenage secretaries, while Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee (Michael Imperioli), gets in some digs at the Nation’s absurd origin myth—its theory that all white people are literal devils on this earth. Lance Riddick is powerful, too, as a Nation minister guarding and/or spying on the four men.
Two of the men—the non-athletes—died within a year of this meeting: Sam in December, Malcolm the following February. Both violent deaths. Clay became Ali and a legend, while Jim Brown embarked on a so-so movie career. Ali and Malcolm have risen in stature over the years, Brown and Cooke less so. A good reason to get started on that Sam Cookie biopic.