Discover more from Between Rock and a Hard Place
"One Night in Miami"--the Review
The true story behind "One Night in Miami" plus: One of the greatest live performances ever.
Welcome to the first weekend newsletter, which launched only this past Monday. Short takes and videos will dominate the weekdays but I will stretch a bit on Saturday and/or Sunday. So today we’ll return to the new movie One Night in Miami, which I have already briefly touted twice this week. To kick it off, that historic moment when two of the four key figures in that movie, Sam Cooke and Muhammad Ali—two of the prettiest men alive in 1964—recorded a duet, in real-life. And don’t forget to subscribe, it’s still free!
When I was growing up in Niagara Falls back in the early- to mid-1960s, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown were two of my three sports heroes (along with Willie Mays). Sam Cooke was among my favorite rock/soul stars. Like most whites, young or old, I found Malcolm X pretty scary, but soon read and admired his Autobiography. Naturally, I was fascinated decades later when I learned that the four men had come together for a celebration that turned into a Black Icon Summit after the mouthy upstart from Louisville, still known as Cassius Clay, upset Sonny Liston in Miami Beach to win the heavyweight crown in February, 1964.
Just think of it: Here in a single, shabby motel room, with no wives or girlfriends and only a couple of Muslim bodyguards or aides, congregated arguably the greatest boxer and football player of all-time, the most influential male singer of his era, plus…Malcolm X. Yet little of any substance had been written about this private meeting, and the FBI report was long hidden. Malcolm and Sam would be dead within a year. Only recently did I read the text of the play, with its vivid if ficitonalized account, One Night in Miami, by Kemp Powers. No wonder I watched the movie based on the play, the first directorial effort by actress Regina King, as soon as it dropped at Amazon Prime on Thursday night.
And it’s terrific. The pace never slackens. You’re never more than five minutes from another provocative face-off. The men sometimes act a little silly but the philosophical and political arguments avoid cliches. There are some factual whoppers (which I will get to in Part II of this report tomorrow) but sharp emotional truths hold sway.
Each man in real-life found himself at a turning point, which drove their disagreements. Clay was on the verge of committing to, and announcing, his allegiance to the so-called Black Muslims, who were feared despised by your average white person. His mentor, Malcolm, was at odds with the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, and on the verge of leading a splinter sect less hostile towards the “white devils.” Jim Brown, tired of having to answer to his white owner in the NFL, was determined to find more freedom in Hollywood even if that meant retiring at his peak from the game he loved. And Sam Cooke, already the first black artist to start his own record label and own his publishing, was determined to record a civil rights anthem that would challenge the one penned by a white boy, Bob Dylan.
All of this is in the script and on the screen, but it’s the debates, often heated, that they spark between the four giants that dominate. Malcolm is the protagonist, as he gently prods Clay to commit to his religion, just as the boxer’s doubts about adhering to its strict moral code and ban on drinking surface. At the same time, Malcolm challanges Brown and Cooke, though proudly militant in their own way, to use their stardom to promote black power. They argue that they are already doing that, speaking out for civil rights and creating economic opportunities for others.
The sharpest exchanges are between Sam and Malcolm. Sam considered this a debate between an artist and a con artist. Malcolm mocked him for some of his fizzy pop tunes, even (at least in the movie) playing a couple of his love songs on a convenient turntable and contrasting them with “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Sam points to the black singers, such as Bobby Womack, that he was supporting on his label. Malcolm asks Cooke why he let those white boys, the Rolling Stones, steal Womack’s great “It’s All Over Now” for an early hit (although it did not reach #1, as the movie claims). Cooke replies: Bobby will be thrilled when he gets his first royalty check and his own publishing cut will go back into the black community. Malcolm accuses Sam of mainly appealing to white audiences, such as at the Copa. Sam points to Malcolm constantly quoting Elijah Muhammad, who has young girls stashed in apartments for his personal use. And so on.
Then there’s Jim Brown revealing to Clay outside the room that he is going Hollywood—in a Western, no less—but swears him to silence. Cassius finds this amusing but Jim explains he’ll be playing a tough “Buffalo soldier,” though he dies halfway through the script. Clay chortles, adding “of course.” Then the boxer floats like a butterfly back into the room and announces Brown’s new role to Sam and Malcolm.
The acting is phenomenal throughout. Malcolm is brilliantly portrayed by the British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir who, yes, did a turn as Barack Obama in the recent The Comey Rule. (After you’ve played Obama and Malcolm, where do you go?) While he performs the least central role of Brown, Aldis Hodge is a massive presence who has voice, facial expressions and gravity down cold—and believe me, I’ve been following Jim since 1958. Hodge was equally spectacular in one of the best movies of 2019, Clemency, with Alfre Woodard. (Here’s a unique return by Jim Brown recently to the motel and the historic room #38.)
The slick and sweet-voiced Leslie Odom, Jr. of Hamilton fame appears to be perfectly cast as Cooke, but at 5’7” he is rather too short physically. Sam was a rangy guy, and elegant from head to toe, but Odom often gets lost amid the mountainous Clay and Brown, and tall Malcolm. He’s more Lou Rawls than Sam Cooke. The script, also by Kemp Powers, gives him full stature, however.
A bigger problem is how the movie handles Sam’s music, at least until near the very end. Those who know little about him watching this movie will likely come away supporting Malcolm’s view that he was nothing but a lightweight (if wildly successful) pop singer revered only by whites. Instead, Sam crossed all sorts of genres and boundaries, first as the highly influential—revered by James Brown, Aretha, Otis and others—male gospel singer with the Soul Stirrers starting in the early 1950s. After going pop/rock with “You Send Me,” he recorded his share of tunes aimed at the teen or Copa crowd, but also “Chain Gang,” “That’s Where It’s At,” “Bring It On Home to Me,” “Soothe Me” and later, “Shake,” along with the quietly soulful Night Beat album. And he packed nightclubs and venues catering to blacks for years, where he adjusted his set list and stylings with more fire and funk. I mean, King Curtis backed him up! At least we do get to see Sam performing “Chain Gang” for a black audience near the close of the movie, a little too late.
Also, Sam did not need Malcolm to challenge him with “Blowin’ in the Wind.” In fact, Sam had already written “A Change Is Gonna Come,” although it was not yet released. But the film does pay tribute to the song’s debut, which did indeed come out of nowhere on Johnny Carson’s Tonight show; a tape sadly does not exist. In the movie’s coda we learn that Clay did become Muhammad Ali shortly after the meeting in Miami and that Malcolm would be assassinated a little after that (although the Nation of Islam rift is not cited). But there’s no mention of Sam’s tragic passing, perhaps because it remains shrouded in controversy.
Tomorrow: more on some of this and a bit of fun fact-checking that does not diminish Regina King’s accomplishments in any way. For now, to offer proof of Sam’s “soul” credentials, here is part of his legendary performance before a black audience in Miami’s Harlem Club, called by Greil Marcus, no less, one of the greatest live performances in rock/soul history. A lengthy depiction of this also opens Spike Lee’s Ali film, although the event took place in 1963, long before that One Night in Miami. These five minutes—including the wild crowd reaction—gives lie to the movie Malcolm’s digs.
Greg Mitchell is the author of a dozen books, including the bestseller The Tunnels, the current The Beginning or the End, and The Campaign of the Century, which was recently picked by the Wall St. Journal as one of five greatest books ever about an election. He won more than a dozen awards as editor of Editor & Publisher magazine and for all of the 1970s he was the #2 editor at the legendary Crawdaddy. This year he wrote and directed his first film feature, Atomic Cover-up.