There’s this Key and Peele sketch from the second episode of that show which always stood out in my memory: in it we peak in on this community theater caliber two man show called “Lunch With Greatness” being performed in what looks like a church basement. This play appeared to dramatize a meeting between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in some sort of hotel room. The play does not look like the deepest of works; it appears to have both figures speaking to one another face to face using rhetoric they would be likely to say to large crowds and has some corny exposition like “it’s a beautiful morning here in Montgomery Alabama.” As it goes on the two performers realize that every time their characters say something righteous the audience nods and goes “mmm hmmm,” and when the guy playing Malcom X realizes that the guy playing Martin Luther King is getting more of this applause he starts going off book in order to get more approval than his co-star. As the sketch goes on the two start ignoring the script entirely to see which performer can out-pander the other, culminating in Malcolm X calling for the re-election of Obama and King randomly giving a shout out to the “strong, beautiful, black women” of the world. The sketch is ultimately more about the egos of these fictional actors than anything, but you do get the sense that a lot of this was born out of a certain frustration and boredom with the tired unchallenging way a lot of black history is dramatized and how so much of it has long been centered on these two figures and their debates with one another. And I must say, the fictional play in that sketch was the first thing that came to mind when I heard about the new movie (itself based on a play) called One Night in Miami, which also looks at a hotel meeting between a quartet of black leaders from the 60s.
One Night in Miami looks at a meeting that took place on Febuary 25th 1964 in a hotel in Miami. Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), who at the time was still going by Cassius Clay, had just knocked out Sonny Liston for the first time becoming the heavyweight champion of the world. Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) all attended that fight in different capacities and the four met up afterwards to celebrate. This much is recorded fact but no one really knows the specifics of what they discussed (to the best of my knowledge the one surviving member of the quartet, Jim Brown, hasn’t discussed it) so from here the film enters into a sort of speculation about what the four men might have discussed. All four were sort of at turning points in their lives: Ali was about to formally join the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X was feuding with the Nation of Islam’s leadership and was on the verge of leaving, Jim Brown had just started his acting career which would eventually lead to his retirement from football, and Sam Cooke had just written his signature song “A Change is Gonna Come” and was about to become more overtly political in his music.
Much of the film’s conflict is between Cooke and Malcom X, who believed the singer had not done enough for the cause of black liberation, which Cooke believed was unfair given the work he’d done as an entrepreneur and the inroads he was making in the music industry. So, liberation through attacking the system vs. liberation from accomplishments within the system. This conflict takes up much of the film’s first half, to the point where you almost feel like Muhammad Ali and especially Jim Brown are almost being short changed, though he does serve something of the role of being a bit of a straight-man and audience surrogate given that he’s not a Muslim and isn’t on the defensive in the movie like Cooke is. This historical accuracy of some of this is a touch dubious; Cooke had actually already released “A Change is Gonna Come” shortly before this meeting, so the timing of that has been fudged a bit for dramatic effect and I must say I have my doubts that Malcom X would actually admit to his own schism with the Nation of Islam to Muhammad Ali before his public conversion, but these seem like reasonable enough liberties to take to fit a narrative like this.
The film rather notably has opted not to fill its cast with major stars and I doubt that’s for lack of interest from various actors who would almost certainly want to portray icons like this. The biggest star here is probably Leslie Odom Jr, a stage actor who rose to a certain prominence playing Aaron Burr in “Hamilton.” That the film’s biggest star was cast as Cooke is probably a function of the fact that he is probably the one of these figures modern audiences will have the least familiarity with and also because they probably wanted someone who could sing. The rest of the cast is filled out with people I frankly hadn’t heard of and they had some pretty big shoes to fill. Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali had both been played by major movie stars in high profile biopics before and people in 2020 know an older Jim Brown pretty well from his various television appearances both as an activist and former football player. Ultimately though this proves to be less of an issue because the version of these men seen here are a bit distinct from what we see of them elsewhere, particularly in the case of Malcolm X, who is in something of a vulnerable moment of his life here. We did see some shades of what we see here in Denzel Washington’s famous portrayal, but only in certain parts of that famously lengthy movie and here we focus in on his more human side which admits a bit more self doubt that what we see in Spike Lee’s version of the character.
Having said all that, the film has limitations. It’s bookended by prologs and epilogues for all four men which are good but perhaps a bit straightforward and I may have liked there to be more screen time for the main “four icons talking to each other” section, which maybe could have used one extra conflict or beat. Beyond that, well, the movie is certainly better than the play from that Key and Peele sketch I was talking about earlier but there are some slightly cringey bits here that still sort of reminded me of that. There’s some questionable exposition here and there and the film likes to pull out these sort of “Mad Men” like moments where characters will say things that the audience will respond to using their knowledge of history to know it has greater significance like when Malcolm X asks Muhammad Ali to remind him what “that British band” he was hanging out with were called (The Beatles) and one of the other characters calls them a fad. Some of these moments land a bit better than that but there are a few clunkers here and there. Beyond that the film never quite makes an argument for this meeting being anything more than a historical curiosity, but it was a curiosity that was worth taking a peak at and audiences that are interested in the history behind these four men will want to give this a look.
***1/2 out of Five