dir: Regina King
My first film for 2021! Who knew that we were even ever going to make it this far? I was sure by now nuclear missiles would have been launched, or flying piranhas would have taken us out, but here we still are, somehow, as much of the world collectively sighs in relief.
This film is another seen recently that is pretty much a play confined to one location, which pretty much is defining the business model of the streaming services that seem to be happy giving people money to make movies based on plays but only if they’re cheap cheap cheap. I don’t mind, because it’s not like multiple locations would have improved what is already a pretty decent film, awesomely acted and tightly directed by a woman who’s had a great couple of years, being the Queen, Regina King.
As if she hadn’t already achieved great things as the lead in the limited Watchmen series as Sister Night, here she shepherds a mythical story about 4 African-American titans and a night they might have shared together.
I call it mythical because, let’s be honest, no-one has any idea what happened that night. That four men hung out and talked shit isn’t that unusual, but when the four men are Muhammed Ali, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke, and the year is 1964, then it seems like something incredibly important.
The film starts with 4 little vignettes, four lead ups to show us where these men are at in their lives and where America is at this point in time, for those who somehow think racism started in 2016: Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), the most acclaimed football player of his day, visits some guy with massive eyebrows in his mansion, where they have a pleasant enough conversation, but the kicker at the end is that the guy, for all the respect he might have for Jim’s achievements, won’t ever allow him into his house, because…
Prototypical soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jnr), already pretty successful, gets to play the Copacabana club for the first time, to the absolute indifference of an entirely white crowd.
Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) boxes in England, taunting his bloodied opponent, showboating to a degree that even he should find embarrassing, and gets knocked out for his troubles.
Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) nervously discusses his plans to leave the Nation of Islam with his nervous wife, and, needless to say, they’re pretty nervous about things.
A while later, the Day that brings them all together for the Night in question, is the day Clay fights Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship belt and wins. The world champ is 22, and, this being based on a play, compares himself to Alexander the Great, and points to the fact that he achieved the same thing as Alexander years earlier, so draw your own conclusions.
He and Malcolm X are already friends at this stage, but the older chap, being a minister in the Nation of Islam, is also mentoring his young friend in the ways of being an observant Muslim. They even pray together at the appropriate prayer time.
This is, unusual, to say the least, in an American film, in this day and age. In its day the Nation of Islam stood as a very wary ally to the efforts on the other side of the aisle, being the very reverend Dr Martin Luther King Junior and their Baptist Christian ways; both with the desire to change the system in terms of Black enfranchisement and civil rights, but varying greatly on the way forward to that objective. Whatever about all of that, but in the States at least, a lot of prominent members of the Nation of Islam stopped being as open about their beliefs after Sept 11, 2001, where they thought it prudent not to mention to anyone what their religion was and how they felt about it in a climate of heightened hatred of Muslims.
If you’re wondering what I’m clumsily alluding to, I mean that Ice Cube and Raekwon from the Wu Tang Clan and Dave Chapelle haven’t exactly been yelling about their faith from the rooftops in the States for the last bunch of years. Especially in a country that, until a day ago, had a travel ban in place stopping Muslims from certain countries being able to fly into or out of the States.
Admittedly, I’m saying this at a time when no-one should be flying anywhere unless it’s to help save people from the virus. But, still.
Anyway, whatever criticisms one can make about the man Malcolm X or the civil rights figure Malcolm X or the Nation of Islam minister Malcolm X, at least based on this flick the two things that can’t be gainsaid or doubted is that he really believes what he preaches, both in terms of civil rights and Islam, and that he thinks the prominence of the people around him needs to be put to a divine purpose. Less emphasis is placed, in this film on the poisonous aspects of the Nation of Islam’s beliefs (the deep seated anti-Semitism, or the separatist stuff, or the stuff with evil wizards and UFOs), and moreso about trying to change things for the better, to use one’s position for the betterment of all African-Americans.
Now, I’m in no position to judge the merits of any religion versus another. Either they’re all true or none of them are true. Arguing about the merits of Catholicism versus Protestantism or Mormonism versus Wahhabism seems like something pointless and completely impossible. It’s like listening to people argue about whether My Little Pony is better than Transformers, or whether Star Wars is better than Lord of the Rings. To the adherents of these religions, of course, it would sound very different if you were judging them against each other, because identity is wrapped up so tightly within these beliefs. But to outsiders they all seem like masturbators arguing about who has the best technique, which ultimately means that even the best of them are still wankers.
To outsiders the actual beliefs underpinning the religion are less important than what the outcomes are, as in, what do they say and do about their members, and other people. If they advocate for and justify hatred against any group, as justified by whatever in order to protect their group, or make themselves feel superior, then fuck them and the pony they rode in on. If they advocate weird stuff but assert that all life is wonderful and all people are united by something positive and that we should all look after each other the best we can because the universe is infinite and cold and mostly suffused with darkness, then alleluia, praise the lord and Satan too, that’s okay by my reckoning.
The Nation of Islam had promoted some appalling beliefs in the past, and doubtless might into the future. There have been deep undercurrents of anti-Semitic and homophobic bullshit woven into their belief structure, which is even above and beyond the ahistorical and fantastical beliefs about genetics and world history. Be that as it may, something being bullshit never stopped it being part of a belief system. And from something I read recently, the current Supreme Leader Louis Farrakhan has even started wrapping up stuff from Scientology into his increasingly bizarre belief system.
So, at the risk of sounding unfair or clueless, fuck anyone that promotes such bullshit. They’re ALL bullshit, but some are more bullshit than others.
Malcolm X believes, though, and he sees the hypocrisy of the so-called prophet Elijah Muhammed and wants to distance himself from the nonsense, because he still believes in the inherent goodness that Islam can bring to the lives of African-Americans. And what he wants, more than anything, is for Cassius Clay to join him on this journey.
The other two guys, Jim and Sam, thought they were here to party. They thought the Champ’s win was going to result in a swinging soiree where lots of (presumably) white ladies were going to be present, and that lots of booze and fun was going to be had by everyone, with the possible exception of Malcolm X, who seems like a buzzkill at the best of times.
Instead what happens over the next two hours is Malcolm X berating them, cajoling them, encouraging them or ridiculing them into thinking about a picture bigger than just themselves and their own success, their own achievements in the “white man’s” world. And even where they are completely different people at completely different stages of their lives, some of it all resonates within them, hopefully in positive ways.
Cassius is so young, so young in fact that despite his heroic levels of arrogance in interviews and in the ring, when he’s not blustering, he seems a bit lost. He’s not so naïve that he ignores that Malcolm is, on some level, using him for his own purposes, using him to promote his own designs for a more strict, more traditional version of Sunni Islam that he intends to advance separately from the Nation of Islam, but he needs some kind of structure to make sense of where he is in the scheme of things. He seems caught on the knife’s edge of a dilemma as to whether to merely go on with his life punching other men in the head for money, or whether to become an icon for more than just his boxing prowess, to be an inspiring hero to other young black men who might see a path forward through religion to a better life.
Jim doesn’t really seem to give much of a fuck about anything. His dilemma seems to be deciding whether he’s going to keep playing football, or whether to move to Hollywood full time. As dilemmas go, it’s not much of one, but he’s there as a practical chap who doesn’t give a fuck about religion or, seemingly, the broader struggle for civil rights.
Sam, on the other hand, being older and wealthier than most of these chaps, is the one who Malcolm had the most anger towards, perhaps the most envy or resentment. Sam Cooke is famous to this day for some of his songs, whereas Malcolm X is something of a footnote in history, a dead-end, so maybe the Malcolm in the movie is aware of what legacy either man will leave behind. Leslie Odom Jnr, most famous probably for playing Aaron Burr in Hamilton on stage and in the movie that was released last year, gives a great and weird performance as this odd chap. He is successful, but none of it seems like luck. He’s built a Black alternative to the kind of music business exploitation that we saw in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, with ownership of his own masters (the recordings of his songs), with Black songwriting teams and production, and material and commercial success.
Malcolm sees that, and condemns Sam for not using his infrastructure and talents to write and promote political songs that serve the purpose of the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans. And though he fights and argues against it throughout the film, and the other two chaps tend to take his side against his accuser, something hits home for him, because, in terms of how the flick plays out, he is the one that changes the most by the close of the story.
Of course, this is all bullshit. No-one should ever mistake any of this for how events ever transpired or what happened when or because of whom. Confusing this for history would be like confusing The Crown with reality – none of the people involved in The Crown ever looked as attractive or had as many teeth as the actors that play then in The Crown.
But it does get across a lot of strong ideas. Malcolm was deeply committed to his cause, and was deeply paranoid, and he should have been. The film implies different, but exactly the same people you would think would kill him killed him. Jim Brown says fuck it and works in movies full time. Sam Cooke drops lots more bangers, but one about a change that’s coming.
And Cassius Clay became, grew into, levelled up and became Muhammed Ali. With the exception of Brown, who, in reality, being the domestic abusing piece of shit that he is, the other three men left a massive impact on the American soul and the African-American psyche, and, hey, maybe it did all happen because of one fateful night in Miami, who knows?
Regina King does a masterful job keeping these jerks on track. It could not have been easy. They, all four men, but especially Kingsley as Malcolm, who is a total annoying jerk but who demands our attention, don’t bring us caricatures of these men. It couldn’t have been easy, but they seem comfortable in the skins of these famous people, famous men, famous Black men, upon whom too much importance, too much responsibility was being placed, to not just be successful men, but symbols to both White and Black America in so many different ways.
I thoroughly enjoyed it even as I was greatly annoyed in certain parts. Just when (I think) the audience is getting sick of Malcom’s hectoring and nagging ways, the sneaky bastard changes tack, and makes us admire him again and Sam even more, telling an anecdote about a gig in Boston that went horribly for Sam, and how he saved it. For all his faults and mistakes, Malcolm X was a gifted and charismatic speaker, and the flick captures that beautifully. In talking about the other famous portrayals of Malcolm X, well, there’s always Denzel’s take, for which he and Spike Lee should have gotten Oscars which he instead got for fucking Training Day, but there’s also Mario Van Peebles in the Ali biopic with Will Smith, which has mostly been forgotten, but I remember it being a pretty strong flick. And this take on it is probably up there even with the best of them.
One Night in Miami is talky, and a bit claustrophobic, and as history it is hilarious, but it’s a compelling enough What If? For a film made from a play, it’s pretty okay.
7 times I wonder whether you could make the same sort of flick but with four versions of Malcolm X arguing in the room, played by four actors that have played Malcolm in four different movies – Denzel, Morgan Freeman, Mario Van Peebles and this jerk Kingsley Ben-Adir all screaming at each other for 4 hours – get right on it Hollywood out of 10
“Everybody talks about they wantin' a piece of the pie, well I don't. I want the goddamn recipe.” – One Night in Miami