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Life Arts    H4'ed 7/4/21

Film Review: One Night in Miami

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John Hawkins
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Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston
Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston
(Image by William Berry 916 from flickr)
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A Topical Storm in Miami

by John Kendall Hawkins

Can't seem to escape Dylan's presence these days. He's like a compound version of Hamlet's ghosts, egging me on to deeds and thoughts I don't need. Too old for this sh*t, like God Himself said. (Ophelia, my feminine "ideal," definitely made it to the nunnery.) Rough and Rowdy Ways. Dylan. Selling his songs for a hero's bonfire of money. Turning 80, getting fawned on, and responding by inviting people to shut up and buy his whiskey at Heaven's Door (don't knock knock knock it until you've tried it). And then I'm hearing that the CIA may actually have written Scorpions' "Wind of Change," which was reminiscent of "Blowing in the Wind," and BAM! watching the film One Night in Miami (2021) the crucial moment comes when Malcolm X busts Sam Cooke's balls and tells him he can do a song better than "that Dylan," and out comes "A Change Is Gonna Come."

And as if that weren't trippy enough, I came across a YouTube video yesterday of Sam Cooke singing Dylan's "Blowing in the Wind," in one of the best covers of the song I've ever heard. Whoa! Check it out:

Pass the acid bong, man.

One Night in Miami tells the true story of the commingling of four great African-American heroes in a Hampton House Motel room for a few hours following Cassius Clay's naughty (signs of early rope-a-dope shenanigans are present) take down of "animal" Sonny Liston at the Convention Center on February 25, 1964. Most of the film is set in the room. Like last year's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the film is based on a stage play. This one by Kemp Powers. The net result, like Ma Rainey, is an intense ensemble dynamism fueled by crisp, tight dialogue. It feels like a play, where words matter, and one is reminded again that words are language, and language is consciousness, and consciousness is humanity, and connecting in this way, through words, negotiating our shared reality, is what sets us apart from beasts.

One Night in Miami is directed by Regina King (debut big-screen direction, after extensive TV-series work), and stars Kingsley Ben-Adir (High Fidelity) as Malcolm X; Eli Goree (Race) as Cassius Clay; Aldis Hodge (Underground) as Jim Brown; and Leslie Odom Jr. (Harriet) as Sam Cooke. It's available on Amazon's Prime Video.

The film opens with brief intros of what each of the four is up to, just before they gather in the motel room. Cassius Clay clowns in the ring, all bee sting and butterfly free, love him or hate him (I chose to love him), his ring antics almost costing him a fight when, distracted, he catches a right cross from his badly battered opponent that floors him (but he's saved by the bell). Jim Brown, the great running back for the Cleveland Browns and movie star, sits with a white "friend" on the porch of a house in the South, the "friend" gives him a mint julep to sip and offers "any assistance," but then tells the stunned athlete, who's offered to help him move furniture, that, "sorry," he doesn't allow "niggers" inside his house. An anxious, family-loving Malcolm X is surrounded by militant bodyguards from the Black Muslim movement. A bon vivant Sam Cooke arrives early and strums his guitar in the room, while waiting for the others.

Providing strand snapshots of the main characters this way is an effective technique. It has the effect of mix-engineering the four equalized tales to come. That's one of the outstanding facets of the film (play) is the depicted self-confidence and vibrancy of the lead characters in their interactions with each other. They are separate, but equal, in the most delightful way. As Ma Rainey owned the stage in August Wilson's play-turned-film, one might have expected Malcolm X to come off as the dominant character, his fiery rhetoric and Nation of Islam militant rejection of the Mighty Whitey's Jim Crow ways, and there is plenty of dramatic tension between Malcolm and Sam Cooke, who gets worked over by every means necessary to make him see that for all of the success that's come to him as the result of the natural honey of his voice, Malcolm regards his music as pablum and ineffective for the black cause. This is the key face-off in the film.

Malcolm has less effect on Cassius Clay and Jim Brown, especially the latter, who is preparing to leave his Hall of Fame NFL career behind to pursue Hollywood stardom. Already, Brown has begun his movie career with a role in Rio Conchos (1964). "I play a Buffalo Soldier," he tells Cassius, referring to the special all-black US infantrymen, who, 'if you know your history,' got their name from the Native Americans and were crucial fighters in the so-called Indian Wars. Jim and Cassius continue:


Damn, that sounds pretty good! So, you're the hero?


One of 'em. But my character gets killed about halfway through, so... [Cassius bursts into laughter.] What?


No, nuthin' man. I shoulda known as soon as you said "black action hero," the next part of that sentence was gonna be "who gets killed."

But Brown is confident. (He went on to appear in 52 films, including the cult hit, The Dirty Dozen.)

Malcolm is highly charged to know that the 22-year-old champion Cassius Clay has decided to convert to Islam and will soon change his name to Muhammed Ali, telling a TV audience after his fight that "Cassius Clay is a slave name." In an ironic exchange between Malcolm and Cassius, the confronting rhetorician admonishes the Champ to "tone down" his playing to the audience, saying his clowning almost cost him a fight. But Cassius, unoffended, suggests to Malcolm that his behavior is modeled on the WWF's "wrassler" Gorgeous George. There's a method to the badness: Everyone may hate him, but they pay to see him, and he gets cash win or lose. The X man finds this curious:


(chuckles) Well, maybe you fellas just like going around with targets on your backs.


(slyly) We learned from the best, brother minister.



Cassius ain't the goof he seems. But the two are close, even later, after Cassius reveals only a half-heartedness toward his conversion.

The most riveting dramatic tension comes from the flashes and flourishes between Malcolm and Sam, and, later, Malcolm and Jim. Malcolm's in the middle of these successful black men who like him personally but are not attracted to his "Black Muslim" message that, to them, alienates and may lead to further pressure on blacks, such as when Malcolm, after JFK's assassination, snarked that "the chickens were coming home to roost." Jim tells Malcolm that his own mother cried at the death; Cassius adds that his mom did, too. The King-Powers portrayal of Malcolm is not like Spike Lee's; there are no zoot suits.

In One Night Malcolm is seen as a melancholy, almost abject figure among his peers in the motel room. He looks increasingly paranoid as the film unfolds, looking out the window, seeing what he suggests are FBI folks shadowing him -- the Hampton House Motel recalling, almost subliminally, to the viewer the Memphis motel Martin Luther King was staying in before he got shot in 1968. And it is a premonition of Malcolm's assassination in 1965. He's trying to get a message through to them: Despite their great success -- they need to put that success to work to further the cause of blacks. It's a tough sell, because it's hard enough to succeed, as a black man, and asking more is a tough load.

Malcolm's toughest sell comes with Sam. X knows he can't do much with Jim and Cassius, two warriors, whose influence is rather episodic and not linguistic. But in Sam he hears a messenger; he wants a kind of radicalized Nat King Cole. And he's clearly prepared to challenge Sam, as he pulls an LP from a brown bag -- it's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963). Malcolm plays "Blowing in the Wind," then waxes didactic:


This is a white boy... from Minnesota. Who has nothing to gain from writing a song that speaks more to the struggles of our people, more to the movement, than anything that you have ever penned in your life. Now, I know I'm not the shrewd business person you are, my brother, but since you say being vocally in the struggle is bad for business, why has this song gone higher on the pop charts than anything you've got out?

When Malcolm presses him and repeats the how come? Sam storms out of the room. The vibe has changed. Jim, who had been staid and laid back and respectful, for the most part, lays into Malcolm. Suddenly, a new vista on racism opens up; a really ugly and insidious integumentary problem, with African-American culture:


You know, I always find it kinda funny how you light-skinned cats end up being so damn militant...Well... You ARE yella as the sun. And when I think about who the most outspoken, consequences-be-damned brothers are out there, it's always you light-skinned boys. You. W.E.B. Dubois. Adam Clayton Powell....


What are you trying to say?


I just wonder if all the pushing and all the "hard line" this, and "hard line" that, is about trying to prove something to white people, Malcolm...or is it about trying to prove something to black people?


That's... a very interesting way of looking at things.

We all often reminded of the color divide, but rarely get a glimpse of this other legacy of slavery -- latte blacks. They're lighter because their forbears exchanged genes with the Mighty Whitey.(Key and Peele address this "issue" quite effectively in a stand-up routine.)

One Night in Miami tells of the volatile moment in US history when modern, post-slavery racism was hotting up. It is set one year before the Voting Rights Act enfranchised black voters (supposedly) in 1965. It comes as blacks were beginning to call themselves African-Americans, drawing attention to their origins over their skin color. One recalls Cassius Clay being stripped of his world championship in 1966 because he refused induction into the military service, stating,

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?

Clay took a knee to US imperialism, and like Colin Kaepernik was ostracized. Jim Brown influenced OJ Simpson (who also went on to be a film star). And with Malcolm, the early signs of the FBI's COINTELPRO war on black leaders could be seen. (Remember the Kill-Yourself-Or-Else letter the Nice Men sent MLK.) And the film is a thoughtful reminder that racism and disenfranchisement -- more than 50 years later -- remain intact and active.

Sam Cooke sang Dylan's "Blowing in the Wind" later in 1964. Decades later, Bob Dylan returned the favor and belted out an old froggy "A Change Is Going to Come" to a mostly white audience at the Apollo in Harlem. Here it is:

If there's a downside to the film, it's that it's an Amazon Original, and watching stuff on my smart TV I always feel Alexa is there, present, like red-eyed HAL in 2001, or even Sharon Stone subliminally crossing her legs, and I feel the sudden unanticipated desire to sign up for a streaming package. "Prime me," I can almost read her lips saying. In other words, it's a very good movie, and well worth watching, but the streaming host is part of the larger societal problem. I'm tired of capitalism crossing its legs sans panties.

The screenplay is also available for viewing for free online here.

(Article changed on Jul 04, 2021 at 12:33 AM EDT)

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Oceania.

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