Skip to main content

You’re just a wind-up toy in a music box.

One Night in Miami
(2020)

(SPOILERS) “Inspired by true events” is a very loose term, invariably closer to “totally made up” than “Based on a true story”. In the case of One Night in Miami, the veracity of a legendary encounter between Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke is probably more akin to Nicolas Roeg’s unlikely meet cute between Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Joe DiMaggio and Joseph McCarthy in Insignificance. Because while X and Clay were certainly sharing celebrations on the night in question, the only other definite is that Brown and Cooke were at the same hotel. Malcolm X taking piccies of a now-abstinent Clay all night probably wouldn’t be that epochal, though, so it’s understandable that Kemp Powers selected the most creatively fertile possibility for his entertaining if rarely challenging “What if such luminaries chewed the fat?”

I was interested to locate the sources for this meeting, but you’ll be lucky if you can find a “fact check” that doesn’t just repeat verbatim “It did happen, but…” Which is up to the standard expected of fact checkers the Internet over. Decider at least confesses they “had trouble finding a concrete source” for the congregation in Malcolm’s hotel room, referencing a Biography article that duly cites several unauthorised biographies. Harpers references Powers as its source, but fails to cite his source. Jim Brown has been asked several times about the meet, even being dragged back to the hotel room in camera, but his recollection is oblique at best. Powers, who has endured the horror of working on Star Trek: Discovery as well as being brandished as a poster boy for Soul’s African-American authenticity, called One Night in Miami "a work of fiction powered by the truth". Which soundbites with the best of them.

Such a dramatisation wouldn’t fly if were all sunshine and roses, so there needs to be conflict of some description amid the celebrations of Clay’s February 25 1964 victory over Sonny Liston. This comes chiefly in the form of Malcolm (Kingsley Ben-Adir) berating Sam (Leslie Odom Jr) for failing to support the black cause. There are effective fireworks during these scenes, but they notably have the effect of putting us squarely on the side of the unfairly harangued Cooke. It’s interesting that Powers should have made this choice, because while he ends the picture overtly venerating X – the “It is a time for martyrs now, and if I am to be one…” quote – one might suggest he humanises him too much for an audience to reach the same conclusion. This is a Malcolm X who is initially all smiles, and at one point in tears, before becoming a blowhard. His targeting Cooke seems slightly cowardly, as he would hardly have confronted Brown (Aldis Hodge) in the same manner for fear of being lamped. The problem with X is in the performance too. Ben-Adir negotiates the shifts in Malcolm’s mood effectively, but he’s entirely unable to suggest a man of stature and bearing.

He’s also encumbered by frankly risible moments, such as when Malcolm roots around in the wardrobe and emerges with Blowin’ in the Wind, lying in wait as a snub to Cooke’s “empty” crooning. Do you think he also had the Peter, Paul & Mary version his record collection? I half expected his following it up with the Surfin’ U.S.A. 7 inch, proclaiming “Now, this Sam. This is more you”. Powers is following the natural narrative progression by then having X patch things up as he recalls seeing a Cooke show where the latter rose to the challenge of Jackie Wilson sabotaging his mike, but it goes to emphasise how schematised the structure is, right down to the period exit of one or more characters intermittently so that others can have their one-on-one.

Odom Jr is outstanding as Cooke, even with the character pushed into the corner of revealing he too has been working on something meaningfully Dylan-esque (A Change is Gonna Come). Eli Goree’s moments as Clay come mostly in the first half, a ball of energy high on his victory, but less enthused as doubts over his decision to convert to Islam begin to prey on his mind and less still when he discovers Malcolm’s split with the Nation of Islam (again, all to be patched up for the morning press conference).

I found Hodge’s Jim Brown the most impressive performance, though. Brown isn’t given any overt conflicts in the way the other three are – aside from a memorable scene setter with Beau Bridges, the outcome of which you can see coming a mile off – but he inhabits the character with such an easy naturalism, you’re more interested in what is going on with him than the others (I love his “Shiiiit, have you tasted my grandma’s pork chops?” when asked why he doesn’t become a Muslim). I also liked that the last we see of Brown is on The Dirty Dozen set (after earlier being mocked for his role in Rio Conchos: “My character gets killed halfway through”). There have been criticisms that no mention is made of Brown’s later behaviour, but it’s difficult to see how that could have been included in any germane way (the closest we come is him threatening to have a pop at Lance Reddick’s Brother Kareem).

It’s also notable that, while Malcolm is suffused with premonitions of his own mortality, no such prescience is granted Cooke, who had even less time left. Of course, having someone warn him “Look out, you might get murdered by J Edgar in the next twelve months and have it framed as self-defence of a debauched rampage on your part” might seem a little silly.

For all that it occasionally fires up, One Night in Miami, with romcom-suggestive title, is by its nature a lightweight confection; Powers isn’t fooling anyone that he’s making some kind of charged political statement. It’s thus unsurprising that it’s getting less awards attention than the worthy-but-inert Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Neither can disguise their stage origins, but Regina King does a much more proficient job in ensuring that factor rarely becomes a negative. Terence Blanchard’s noodling score is also a little too indifferent. Or perhaps it’s fitting for that reason. One Night in Miami is quite likeable, but also quite indifferent.


Popular posts from this blog

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 1 (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Get away from my burro!

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) (SPOILERS) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is beloved by so many of the cinematic firmament’s luminaries – Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi, , Paul Thomas Anderson and who knows maybe also WS, Vince Gilligan, Spike Lee, Daniel Day Lewis; Oliver Stone was going to remake it – not to mention those anteriorly influential Stone Roses, that it seems foolhardy to suggest it isn’t quite all that. There’s no faulting the performances – a career best Humphrey Bogart, with director John Huston’s dad Walter stealing the movie from under him – but the greed-is-bad theme is laid on a little thick, just in case you were a bit too dim to get it yourself the first time, and Huston’s direction may be right there were it counts for the dramatics, but it’s a little too relaxed when it comes to showing the seams between Mexican location and studio.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome . As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , or John McClane in the last two Die Hard s). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown. I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was