' ' Cinema Romantico: One Night in Miami...

Monday, April 12, 2021

One Night in Miami...

The night of February 25, 1964, after defeating Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title, Cassius Clay met up in a Miami hotel with three more Black American icons: singer Sam Cooke, football star and nascent actor Jim Brown, and activist Malcolm X. What was discussed, what happened, no one knows, though it became the genesis of Kemp Powers’s 2013 play “One Night in Miami...” Regina King has adapted that play for the big screen, though it is hard not to notice the film’s theatrical roots, given the limited setting, considerable conversation and dramatic structure. Still, not only does Powers’s adaptation of his own work build out the film with evocative add-ons, King utilizes space in that motel room as much as she can, visually and verbally, allowing pauses and ruminative close-ups amid the constant confrontation, as well as a gliding camera akin to her visual style for Cassius’s big bout, suggesting the real fight come after. 

Rather than simply open in the motel room, “One Night in Miami...” does not so much introduce us to all four men as reveal them in their present 1964 element, where even Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), the best football player in the world, cannot enter the home of a white family friend (Beau Bridges) because he is African-American and a white audience at the Copa is left indifferent to a burgeoning recording legend like Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.). The opening scene is a different Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) fight, against Henry Cooper (Sean Monaghan) in London, which he treats less as a bout than a canvas for clowning, until he briefly gets floored, yielding a reaction shot from his corner that is more comical than dramatic, demonstrating that for so much heavy talk “One Night in Miami...” can still be light on its feet. And by revealing Clay’s penchant for performance over purpose, this moment also establishes the film’s through line. Indeed, the first shot of Brother Malcolm (Kingsley Ben-Adir), in fact, is of him through the television set, sitting for an interview, then a cut to him at home with his family, a deft demonstration of how Malcolm had to negotiate his public and private worlds and how those unavoidably collided. Through this light, the kind devotion of nigh omnipresent security detail, Brother Kareem (Lance Reddick), becomes, well, not quite comic relief but a quietly comic reminder of solitude’s unattainability.

Part of the drama stems from Clay’s decision to join the Nation of Islam, one he has been keeping private but which comes to the forefront as the evening progresses, culminating in his announcement to the press. In this scene, the hotel room essentially becomes the wings and the balcony the stage, Clay stepping outside with Malcolm to make his forthcoming conversion official. Goree’s preening and strutting for the press does not feel quite as pronounced, perhaps, as the real Ali, or even as Will Smith performing as Ali, but his private persona feels spot-on, like it’s taking a page from David Maraniss’s portrayal of him in “Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World” as something more like a rambunctious teenager. There are moments when Clay, the heavyweight champ, remember, pointedly feels out of his depth among these men, underscored by how King has him fade into the background of frames. Jim Brown is on the opposite end of the spectrum, perhaps the least vital of the four figures in this context if only because he feels the most sure of himself, which Hodge’s cool charisma underscores. 

It might be Cassius’s evening but “One Night in Miami...” mostly boils down to Malcolm and Sam, the former prodding the latter to use his performance genius as protest, utilizing a tale of his seeing Sam live as something akin to a parable of connection, and even playing Cooke’s beautiful if skin-deep songs side-by-side with Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” The latter is an indelible moment, innately tied to now as much as then, conjuring up not merely notions of how easier it is for white people to lodge public protest without engendering blowback, a kind of dare with genuine weight. At this, Sam leaves the room, and for all his first-rate singing, it is Odom Jr.’s finest moment, rendering the pain palpable and personal. And yet Jim pushes back against Malcolm afterwards, pointing out Sam has economic freedom, the only true independence in a capitalist society, muddying those moralistic waters just a bit more.

The argument is settled, in a way, by the film closing on Sam’s public performance of “A Change is Gonna Come”, suggesting he has heeded Malcolm’s call to arms. The denouement of Spike Lee’s X biopic, of Malcolm on his way to the Audubon Ballroom, began with his patented floating shot scored to the same song and, true to that sensation, the activist’s fate looms over the entire movie, evoked in Kingsley Ben-Adir’s performance, which sometimes can feel entirely chiseled out of that stutter, desperate, cracking, someone who senses his time on this Earth is nearing an end and is pushing himself to ensure the cause will be upheld. At one point, Sam says Malcolm is talking to them in private the way he talks to everyone else in public. He means this as a criticism. But that’s the thing, even if the very premise of “One Night in Miami...”, imagining a summit untold to the outside world, suggests otherwise, the movie goes to show that for men like these, eventually, your private life and your public persona, like it or not, are one and the same.

No comments: