This past year has seen a stampede of theatrical projects leaping into the movies. Classics like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom are vaulting onscreen; recent Broadway ventures get Hollywood makeovers (The Prom and The Boys in the Band); even filmed theatrical events are popping up in popular streaming queues — American Utopia, What the Constitution Means to Me, and Hamilton. It’s an irony in a year threatening live performance with total destruction that our screens are hungrier than ever for theater turned film.
Kemp Powers’s 2013 play One Night in Miami was not an obvious candidate for filming. For one thing, it observes the unities: a single location, a single span of time, a single action. In converting this compact script to the screen, director Regina King interleaves a few scenes that take us into a wider world and chronology, but she’s mainly content to stay intimately, even claustrophobically, close to four men talking. If someone stands up to go to the door in this movie, it’s an event. If they step outside for a breath of air, it’s a cataclysm.
Powers took his inspiration for the play and screenplay (which he adapted) from an actual meeting: On February 25, 1964, Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) all gathered in a motel room to fête Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) for his championship victory over Sonny Liston. They were young — Clay only 22 — and famous, each wielding a torch of Black leadership. Each was also on the verge of some great step. Clay would soon announce his commitment to the Nation of Islam and take the name Muhammad Ali; Malcolm X would split publicly with Elijah Muhammad; Jim Brown was to leave football for film (and activism); and Sam Cooke had just released “A Change Is Gonna Come,” though this event is nudged slightly later in Powers’s time scheme. In the writer’s fictionalization of that night, the quartet barely discusses family or sports or where to get a bite to eat. Instead they are consumed with their responsibilities to the struggle, each frustrated by one another’s choices and secretly doubting his own. It’s why the compression of the setting is so important — here are conversations only possible behind closed doors.
King gives One Night in Miami a rather stately pace. In the motel room, each man holds forth and then gives way, as if he’s moving in a dance. (This rhythm seems to come from Cooke’s music — its slow swing and glide.) King often has cinematographer Tami Reiker capture the four men in the Hampton House motel’s sepia-and-chocolate-toned room like sculptures in a garden, smooth golden light shawling around them, their arrangement leading our eye to the man whose gravity keeps them there. This center is actually Malcolm, not Clay. Though Clay is full of “I’m so pretty” quips and swaggering energy, Goree never seems like the heavyweight in the room. He also never really seems like Clay, at least not the one we remember for his gadfly wit. It’s dangerous to write for men who were themselves rhetorical powerhouses, and Powers can’t re-create the real boxer’s verbal sprezzatura. There’s a moment in the film when we see Malcolm X’s words onscreen, and they, too, seem far crisper and more elegant than what Powers has given him to say.
But Powers and King are interested less in the men’s voices — with the significant exception of Cooke’s — than they are in their chosen paths. Is Black liberation economic freedom? Cooke swears it is, and he throws down his bona fides — owning his own masters and getting Black musicians paid, even when it means giving their best songs to the Rolling Stones. Brown thinks so, too, though he is clearly grappling with deep rage about his years on the gridiron. “Some white folks just cannot wait to pat themselves on the back for not being cruel to us,” he says, when Cooke is out of the room. The singer believes he can reach white people and convert them from their bigotry; Brown, more circumspect, has another play in mind.
Or is Black liberation the freedom not to perform? Before the action heads into the motel room, the film does offer us glimpses of their lives. Clay makes wild promises to a boxing crowd, then backs his boasts up with sweet science; Brown is first welcomed, then shunned by a white racist (Beau Bridges), while Cooke has a similar hot-and-cold welcome from the Copacabana clientele. The contrast between their behavior in front of their chosen publics and in private is one measure of their constraint. Malcolm, on the other hand, is only shown among his family, dazzled with love for his little girl. The film doesn’t choose to show him in prophet mode — the others josh him for his militant speeches, but we never see him in full flight. Instead, Ben-Adir plays him as a gentle soul, bashfully offering his friends ice cream. Even when he insists that the others brandish themselves like weapons, this version of Malcolm X never seems to contain the warrior.
With the other three softened by Powers’s dialogue and muted by sentiment (that golden light can stifle after a while), the movie falls like ripe fruit into Leslie Odom Jr.’s hand. He has an unfair advantage — when in doubt, he can sing. Biopics have a push-me-pull-you relationship to reality, since everything we already believe haunts the frame. For instance, we know that Cooke and Malcolm both died inside a year of this gathering, which automatically gives the events a tragic shadow. This too close presence of reality also yanks at the film’s threads, though, whenever a line sounds jarringly expositional (no real-life conversation ever contains the question “You remember the first time we met?”), or when an actor doesn’t quite conform to a familiar outline. So it’s left to Odom Jr. who can really, actually, verifiably sing to make up the distance between truth and pretend.
Whenever Cooke sings, whether at a microphone or crooning privately to himself, the movie swoons. For the most part, One Night in Miami doesn’t spend much time showing us our characters’ perspectives; it echoes the model of a stage play in that way, using language, instead of the camera, to direct attention. But in the film’s most powerful scene, we finally get to be in a man’s head, rather than just his room. Malcolm reminisces about a concert he saw in Boston, when the sound went out just as Cooke was starting to sing. No one can hear the music; the microphone’s gone dead. Malcolm and his Nation of Islam brothers are standing all the way at the back of the theater, watching the crowd grow restless. But then Cooke stamps his foot — and the audience takes up the beat, giving him a rhythm. Leslie Odom Jr. starts to sing “Chain Gang” a cappella, and the camera lifts up from the lip of the stage and travels backward to Malcolm, whose face is transformed. He (and we) can’t hear the song; he can only hear the audience stomping. But — and the movie proves this, too — there’s something beautiful even in reflected glory.
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