Regardless of the Stones reference (about half way down) this looks like a fascinating movie.
'The humanity of black characters is often forgotten': behind Oscar-tipped One Night in Miami
In an acclaimed new film, the story of a night between four major figures – Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali – is brought to life
One thing is certain: vanilla ice cream was eaten. The rest? If only we knew.
The year is 1964 and activist Malcolm X, singer-songwriter Sam Cooke and American football player Jim Brown gather in Miami, Florida, to cheer boxer Muhammad Ali – then Cassius Clay – to his first world heavyweight championship. No celebration is planned because he was not expected to win, so the four repair to Malcolm’s hotel room in the segregated African American part of town.
Their little known meeting intrigued writer Kemp Powers when he read about it in Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties, a book about the intersection of civil rights and sport by Mike Marqusee. “It was like a tossed out paragraph and it’s one of those things where you stop and go back and go, wait, what?” Powers recalls in a Zoom interview.
“That sparked a great deal of interest because they were probably four of the most iconic black men to me in my life at that time, so I set about doing a lot of research because I wanted to know how they all met one another.”
A journalist at the time, Powers had to endure pre-internet research involving long distance travel to hunt out-of-print biographies and obscure VHS recordings. Efforts to contact Brown – still alive today – and Ali were unsuccessful. The events of that night remained tantalisingly elusive.
What was a curse for a journalist, however, proved a blessing for a playwright. When he switched careers to creative writing, Powers saw the story’s potential in a new light. “It seemed like the very thing that stopped me and stymied me researching the book, which was I couldn’t really figure out too much of what went on in the room, felt like the perfect grist for a stage drama.”
The upshot was One Night in Miami, a 2013 stage play that earned an Olivier award nomination when it was directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah at London’s Donmar Warehouse a few years later. Now comes a film version adapted by Powers and starring British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm, Eli Goree as Clay, Aldis Hodge as Brown and Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr as Cooke.
Most of the action takes place in the secluded hotel room, with the audience a fly on the wall as conversations zig and zag between the trivial and the tragic. Clay, just 22, cocky, beautiful and barely scratched by the big fight, is about to rattle much of white America by announcing his name change and allegiance to the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist movement that worships Allah.
Powers says: “When Ali lit the torch at the Olympics [in 1996], he was at the time the most beloved athlete in the world. But in the 60s a lot of the same people despised him like a demagogue. It’s interesting to see the change in the perception, almost to the point where it seemed like it was prudent for people to forget his politics.
“He was vocal about things that people would not be vocal about and that was aggressive for someone so young. He was willing to even sacrifice his own career on behalf of those beliefs.”
Malcolm was among the most prominent members of the Nation of Islam and the film conveys in him a mix of charm, ferocity and fragility. Powers says: “Malcolm’s philosophy was incredibly powerful and moving to all of those men. When Sam Cooke was killed in a hotel in Los Angeles in December that year, his red Ferrari was parked outside and inside it they found a bottle of whisky next to a copy of Muhammad Speaks.
“That little thing says so much about Malcolm’s philosophy and politics getting into the head of this pop crooner: he had a copy of the Nation of Islam paper in his car on the night he died. Those are the details that give me the grist for this story and the relationships.”
But the true heavyweight bout of this film does not involve Clay. Malcolm accuses Cooke of indulging respectability politics, arguing that he should be using his voice “for the cause” of black liberation instead of entertaining mostly white crowds. “You’re a monkey dancing for an organ grinder to them,” he says.
Cooke contends that his success as black businessman, boosting the careers and incomes of other black artists, is a form of liberation in itself. Then Malcolm puts Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind on a record player and pointedly asks how it is that “a white boy from Minnesota speaks more to the struggles of our movement than anything you’ve written in your life”. (Cooke’s eventual response was A Change is Gonna Come.)
As in many strong plays, the author doesn’t choose sides, or rather takes both sides at the same time. Powers recalls: “The joy of seeing it on stage was watching the audience get behind one philosophy and then seeing them have to go [sharp intake of breath] and turn on a dime when the retort made as much if not more sense. Probably the strongest case of that was the fight between Malcolm and Sam where Sam tells a story about the Rolling Stones
and his influence on them.