One Night in Miami
(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.