Patrick Mulcahy on a moment of hope and expectation
There are very few plays that have been turned into great movies. Plenty have won Oscars like Driving Miss Daisy and Amadeus, but these movies have been defined by central performances from the likes of Jessica Tandy or F. Murray Abraham rather than classic moments of cinema. Still, these filmed plays often contain better writing than your average three act Hollywood screenplay if not always great dramatic moments. A case in point is One Night in Miami, adapted by Kemp Powers from his 2013 stage play.
Powers is having a terrific year, Covid considered, having written and co-directed the upcoming (and well-reviewed) Disney Pixar film, Soul. His play is well-served by the actress Regina King, making her feature film directorial debut. Ultimately, padding aside, it is just four guys in a hotel room on 25th February 1964 arguing about next steps. But the four guys are the black activist and Muslim convert, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), the boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), the soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr) and Cleveland Browns fullback-turned-actor, Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). Before the night is out, Cassius will change his name to Muhammad Ali and Malcolm will break with the Nation of Islam, a movement mired in controversy, particularly for its treatment of women.
Ostensibly Cooke and Brown are there to celebrate Clay’s win over Sonny Liston, improbable the previous year when the brash twenty-two-year-old boxer was clobbered by Henry Cooper. Malcolm, Clay’s ‘spiritual adviser’, is keen to oversee the boxer’s conversion to Islam and for them to be seen together, but when Clay learns that he isn’t becoming a member of the Nation of Islam but of Malcolm’s breakaway movement, he suspects he is being used. Cooke finds himself vigorously opposed to Malcolm; for him, success and working within the system is a better way of fighting racism than declaring war on white people. Cooke owns a label and champions black artists. Brown thinks earning big bucks in Hollywood is the answer, though in his first role in the western, Rio Conchos, his character dies early. He is told that for all his $34,000 salary, he is cannon fodder. In an early scene, we see him similarly humiliated when visiting a Southern gentleman (Beau Bridges), who admires his running and will drink lemonade with him on the porch, but won’t let him inside the house.
The clash between Cooke and Malcolm is the heart of the film. Malcolm humiliates him by playing his record, a love song with bland lyrics, and contrasts it with Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, asking him why it took a white guy to articulate “our struggle”. However, Malcolm also admires him, describing how at one concert, when Jackie Wilson (Jeremy Pope) sabotages the speaker system, Cooke gets the initially hostile audience to generate a rhythm against which he could sing. The scene, staged as a flashback, is one of the film’s more affecting moments.
Although the drama takes place at a particular moment in American history, barely three months after the death of John F. Kennedy but five months before the passing of the Civil Rights Act, it speaks to us now. In the film, we see the appeal of a binary view of the world in which groups are either on one side or another. This view, illustrated by Malcolm’s philosophy, leads to the cementing of division. Cooke offers a different view, more nuanced, less overtly confrontational, placating rather than fuelling the fire of hostility. None of the men in the film represents a viewpoint with which we can wholly agree, but they all have elements of an appropriate response to racism and injustice.
The actors rise to the challenge of their iconic roles in different ways. Foree gives us the swagger of Cassius Clay, with the hyperbole to match. “Alexander conquered the world when he was thirty; I conquered the boxing world when I was twenty-two,” he boasts after his victory against Liston. Ben-Adir emphasises Malcolm’s quiet strength, though the casting does not suggest that he is seventeen years Clay’s senior – the cast seem broadly the same age. Odom Jr embodies Cooke’s easy charm and sense of self-worth, while Hodge projects Brown’s solidity; he too has nothing to prove.
The finale is cathartic. Cooke did become a more politically engaged artist, with the song ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, though both he and Malcolm would be killed less than twelve months after this fateful evening. Bertha Franklin, the woman who allegedly shot Cooke in December 1964, was never charged. The film doesn’t dwell on the future, but holds us in the moment of success, hope and expectation.