In playwright/screenwriter Kemp Powers’ seminal “One Night in Miami,” Cassius Clay, mere hours removed from winning the heavyweight boxing title, mulls his impending decision to join the Nation …
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In playwright/screenwriter Kemp Powers’ seminal “One Night in Miami,” Cassius Clay, mere hours removed from winning the heavyweight boxing title, mulls his impending decision to join the Nation of Islam. He asks a young Nation bodyguard why he decided to convert. The young man recounts how he wished he had joined as a teenager, when he was the target of bullies.
“You don’t need religion for that kid, you can just join a gang,” says Jim Brown, the heralded football star.
“What’s the damn difference?” the young man replies.
Adapted by Powers from his 2013 play of the same name and the directorial debut for actress Regina King, “One Night in Miami” has all the ingredients for a superficial, sensational, hyperbolic spectacle. What unfolds instead is one of the most thoughtful, incisive cinematic dissections of modern civil rights and racial freedom. Although based around a contrivance, the screenplay’s depth of truth-telling and honesty is even-handed and bold. It is one of the best films of 2020.
As the film opens, Clay (Eli Goree) is being chastised for his friendship with Malcolm X despite Clay’s formidable in-ring success. Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) remains a well-known firebrand, but his conflict with the Nation of Islam and its leader, Elijah Muhammad, is placing him and his family at risk. The popular crooner Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr. of “Hamilton”) is fresh off getting an icy reception from the all-white audience at the Copacabana. Brown is invited to visit an old family friend in Brown’s St. Simons, Georgia, hometown so the old man can heap praises on Brown for his record-breaking season with the Cleveland Browns. When Brown (Aldis Hodge) volunteers to help the man move some furniture, he thanks “Jimmy” before casually reminding him that “we don’t allow n----s in the house.”
After Clay defeats Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight crown in Miami, he, Malcolm, Brown, and Cooke gather at the Hampton Hotel for what everyone except Malcolm believes will be a raucous after party. Instead, they dive into the crossroads each is facing in their personal and professional lives and how their current station enhances, or conflicts, with the larger aim of African-American empowerment. Clay is poised to announce his conversion to Islam but privately remains apprehensive about the blowback and his ability to forego women and wine. Brown is mulling retirement from football to pursue a full-time movie acting career, but the four debate whether this would be an act of personal independence or ceding away Brown’s most influential platform to trade one master for another.
Meanwhile, Cooke’s success writing and singing love songs that appeal to white listeners prompts a row with Malcolm. Cooke castigates Malcolm, saying that Malcolm’s view of black versus white is not as black and white as he contends, arguing that Cooke’s economic success in a white world is more potent than mere preaching and protesting. Malcolm then puts on a recording of Bob Dylan’s chart-topping protest song “Blowin’ in the Wind,” shaming Cooke with proof that the two aims are not mutually exclusive.
The four principal performances are effective, although partly uneven. Goree’s impersonation of Clay (later Muhammad Ali) is tenuous, but he convincingly reveals the uncertainties underneath the bravado. Conversely, Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X is almost too vulnerable, too vacillating — only during his tête-à-tête with Cooke does he flash the famous fire in Malcolm’s belly. Meanwhile, Hodge accurately exudes Brown’s strong but silent persona, and the talented Odom is dynamic in portraying Cooke the man and performer.
Powers’ script touches on a cornucopia of topics, from religion to celebrity to colorism, all through the prism of race and racism. “One Night in Miami” is a fictionalized setting about a very real divide and the varying means to bridge it. It is a feast for the heart and mind.
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