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The Black supermen

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on January 22, 2021

Leading the way: A still from One Night in Miami with the cast (from left to right) Leslie Odom Jr, Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir and Aldis Hodge   -  IMAGE COURTESY: AMAZON STUDIOS

Regina King’s film ‘One Night in Miami’ turns the spotlight on four young men’s often conflicting ideas of power, and how to use it for a cause

* The film’s screenplay is, in a word, brilliant

* Malcolm taunts Cooke, calling him the white man’s “monkey”, because Cooke continues to sing at venues where “the only Black people not onstage are the ones serving the food”

* The film marks yet another triumph for Regina King, who makes an accomplished directorial debut and continues her surreal recent form

****

In 1964, 22-year-old Cassius Clay announced he had become a Muslim and adopted the name Muhammad Ali. The announcement, which came a week after his shock victory over world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, left even Clay’s die-hard supporters scrambling to support him. Many found it difficult to digest the idea of a Muslim world champion. Ali had the additional disadvantage of being ushered into Islam by Malcolm X (who was then affiliated with the Black separatist organisation Nation of Islam and its controversial founder Elijah Mohammad). And at that moment in time, everybody hated Malcolm X, especially after his ill-timed remarks following the Kennedy assassination (“the chickens have come home to roost”).

Regina King’s excellent new film One Night in Miami (based on the 2013 play of the same name by Kemp Powers), recently released on Amazon Prime Video, presents a fictionalised version of a meeting between Ali (Eli Goree) and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) on the evening the former became world champion. Also in attendance are Jim Brown (the first Black athlete in the NFL — the National Foodtball League, played by Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (the legendary soul singer, played by Leslie Odom Jr); although the four men were all friends in real life, the meeting described here is entirely made-up.

The film’s screenplay is, in a word, brilliant. It seamlessly incorporates Brown and Cooke’s stories into the already charged Ali/Malcolm dynamic, finding ways of linking their individual dilemmas with the larger political questions they discuss among themselves. Brown is the only Black NFL player, but he is thinking about retiring to pursue a movie career. It’s not just about the money; he feels Hollywood is a less racist space to occupy. He is encouraged in this venture by Cooke, who has no qualms about pandering to his white audiences. Malcolm taunts Cooke, calling him the white man’s “monkey”, because Cooke continues to sing at venues where “the only Black people not onstage are the ones serving the food”.

Ultimately, One Night in Miami is about debates like these — four charismatic, brilliant young men who have very different ideas about power and how best to use power and influence for a cause. Cooke, for example, gets enraged at Malcolm’s blunt critique of his musical career. He says he might not have written songs of revolution (“like that white boy from Minnesota”, a reference to Bob Dylan) but the record label he owns produces plenty of Black artistes — is that not giving money and power into the hands of the people? Cooke’s angry retort to Malcolm is actually one of the most touching parts of the film. Here he is, explaining why he feels Brown should join him in Hollywood.

“We got our own Black Beverly Hills. And we got the better view. Top of the hill, looks out over the whole city, mountains in the distance. Nicer than Harlem, a whole lot nicer than Overtown. No tenements or slumlords. Just sunshine, pools and beaches. No Green Book telling you where you can and can’t go. The only colour that matter in Cali is that green.”

The ‘Green Book’ bit refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual guidebook popular in America from the 1930s to the ’60s or so; it was a list of places and businesses that welcomed (or did not actively discriminate against) Black people. That King includes this line here could also be a reflection of Black artistes’ frustration at the movie Green Book winning the Best Picture Oscar in 2019 (despite being criticised heavily for historical inaccuracies as well as pushing a “white saviour” narrative).

The second half shows us why Cooke feels so strongly about his financial success — while Ali and Brown are supportive and enjoy whatever lovey-dovey, safe-for-a-white-audience songs he writes, Malcolm is unmoved at first. He feels Cooke is one of the “bourgeois Negros” who are of no use to the Black cause in the long run. I won’t spoil how exactly the two friends make up — but it is a truly special moment that takes you by surprise.

Goree, meanwhile, is a delight to watch as Clay/Ali. His comedic chops are displayed in the film’s opening half-hour, as he mercilessly teases his opponents in the ring before knocking them out (“Damn Sonny, did you get uglier?” he taunts a bewildered Sonny Liston). A born showman, Ali was also keenly aware of the contrived nature of his persona — see how Goree’s tonality and choice of words change dramatically once the cameras are off.

In fact, this is the primary grievance Malcolm’s friends have against him; unlike Ali, Malcolm doesn’t know how to turn the ‘act’ off. Ben-Adir is easy on the eye and presents a compelling mixture of erudition and vulnerability as Malcolm X; this is a studied, precise performance that clearly involved tonnes of research. He also has the most delightfully sonorous voice, although his parallel role as Barack Obama (in the miniseries The Comey Rule, which was released in October 2020) definitely meddled with the Malcolm-voice at a few places.

One Night in Miami marks yet another triumph for Regina King, who makes an accomplished directorial debut and continues her surreal recent form. The last couple of years have seen King scooping up an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her role in the film If Beale Street Could Talk plus Emmys in 2018 and 2020 for the miniseries Seven Seconds and Watchmen, respectively. And now, she has started 2021 with a film that’s sure to be on most critics’ year-end lists.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer

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Published on January 22, 2021
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