A Review of One Night in Miami, Directed by Regina King
This film is a revelation for this old white man who was very much aware of the actual events portrayed in this exceptionally well-made and revelatory movie about an imagined 1964 meeting of Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, and Sam Cooke. I was in my late teens when the events dramatized here were taking place and I watched the TV news and read the newspaper reports with considerable interest.
The writing, acting, and direction are outstanding, and the film certainly deserves the best picture, acting, writing, and directing nominations for all the usual awards. All the other reviewers are saying the same thing.
For me, however, there is another aspect I want to discuss. That would be the extraordinary insight into the lives of Black people at that time and how their thoughts and ideas were never accurately portrayed by the mainstream media in those days. The bourgeoise white-dominated mainstream media platforms of that time engaged in what I now see as systemically racist thinking. I suspect the reporters and editors did not think this was the case. They probably thought they were being objective. They were not.
I was living in Cleveland, Ohio at that time and I remember when Jim Brown announced his retirement from the Cleveland Browns. The coverage implied he was turning his back on the team and the city. The team owner, Art Modell, was going to impose a fine on him if he didn’t report to training camp on time while he was then involved in his second movie as an actor, The Dirty Dozen. The media’s underlying but unexpressed attitude seemed to be, “Screw him, the ungrateful SOB. He thinks he can act. Hah!”
And when Cassius Clay announced he was joining the Nation of Islam and changing his name to Muhammad Ali, the press went nuts. Elijah Muhammad and his followers were seen as radicals who had called for the destruction of “whitey” and anyone who would turn his back on his Judeo-Christian upbringing to join this pre-jihadist organization was a traitor to American culture and values. But in the movie, we see Ali’s thinking and how his relationship with Malcolm X brought about that conversion. Muhammad may have loved to be the braggart and showman, but he was deeply thoughtful and very dedicated to better opportunities for Black people. He saw the injustices, he suffered them himself, and he determined to do something about it.
Malcolm X, like Elijah Muhammad, was also portrayed as a Black radical who wanted to bring down the status quo in America, that comfortable, privileged milieu in which so many of us were able to enjoy a middle-class lifestyle, albeit with challenges of our own. And it was our own challenges that made us resent what we saw as an unfair portrayal of whites by these Black radicals. Some years later I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and marveled at what the man had undergone, the challenges he faced, and the merciless way he was martyred for the cause of racial equality. The movie does not spare Elijah Mohammed, as Malcolm X discusses with the then-still-Cassius Clay, the man’s extravagant lifestyle and sexual peccadillos that would motivate Malcolm X to leave the Nation of Islam and strike out on his own.
And Sam Cooke. How I remember his appearances on American Bandstand and Johnny Carson. I was not much of a fan of R&B back then but like millions of white Americans, I loved his music. I had no idea that this incredibly talented, mellifluous singer and songwriter had to endure such shoddy, base treatment from the very venues that booked him to perform and add so handsomely to their bottom lines. Malcolm X apparently castigates him for not being “black enough” with his songs. He accuses him of pandering to the white audience when he should be writing about the struggle for recognition and equality. And at the end of the movie, Cooke releases his great hit, A Change Is Gonna Come, a clear departure from his feel-good, romantic earlier works.
This filmic portrayal of four American heroes is a tribute to the values that founded our Nation. And in closing, I would like to say that while many of our Founders were slaveholders, they were also the people who authored the framework that made the eventual end of slavery possible and established the governance structures that have made progress possible. Kudos to screenwriter Kemp Powers (who also wrote the play on which the movie is based), director Regina King, and actors Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X), Eli Goree (Muhammad Ali), Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown), and Leslie Odom, Jr. (Sam Cooke). The supporting cast of Lance Reddick (Brother Kareem), Joaquina Kalukango (Betty Shabazz, nee Betty X), Michael Imperioli (Angelo Dundee), Beau Bridges (Mr. Carlton), and the other actors also deserve recognition for their fine work in this film.