We’ll never know exactly what was said between Cassius Clay, Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X, soul singer Sam Cooke, and football superstar Jim Brown behind closed doors in a Miami hotel room on February 25, 1964, but a new film by Oscar winner Regina King in her directorial debut, offers up a fascinating what-if scenario.
Going into the boxing ring on that night against heavy weight champion Sonny Liston, Cassius Clay (Halifax-born Eli Goree), who had not yet officially changed his name to Muhammad Ali, was a 7-to-1 underdog. When the fight was over Clay was the youngest boxer to ever grab a title from a reigning heavyweight champion.
Helping him celebrate the landmark win are his three closest friends, mentor Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), hit maker Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and athlete Brown (Aldis Hodge). Convened at their Miami hotel on the warm February night, the foursome, all at turning points in their lives, share their thoughts, get heated, debate about how to end segregation, all with an eye toward the future.
That two of them would be murdered within the next year adds poignancy to an already charged conversation.
Cooke and Brown mull over career choices. A discussion of Cooke’s slick but conventional pop songs led to the writing and recording of “A Change Is Gonna Come,” one of the greatest anthems of the Civil Rights Movement. Brown, already a superstar on the football field, comes under fire for appearing in a movie Western called “Rio Conchos,” as a minor character, killed off early in the action.
Clay is celebratory, but plotting his next moves, both professionally and personally as he decides when to announce his conversion to Islam and his name change to Muhammad Ali.
The firestarter is X, the public figure under surveillance by the FBI, who encourages his friends to take a more militant stand, to use their celebrity and standing in a more meaningful way. He is the discontent, an activist who predicts hard times ahead.
“One Night in Miami” began life as a stage play by “Star Trek: Discovery” staff writer Kemp Powers, who also penned the movie’s script. As such, there’s a theatrical feel to King’s staging of the scenes, most of which take place in the hotel room. She has opened up the play, adding new locations and a series of vignettes at the beginning of the film, but this isn’t about action, it’s about the verbal fireworks of Powers’ script and authoritative performances.
It’s a snapshot of the cultural importance of this quartet; a history lesson made even more potent in the era of Black Lives Matter. “Power,” says Clay, “is a world where it’s safe to be ourselves.”