On the night of February 25, 1964, Muhammad Ali defeated Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight championship of the world. Afterwards, at the request of Ali, the newly-crowned champ, along with football superstar Jim Brown, singer-songwriter Sam Cooke, and Nation of Islam Minister Malcolm X, all convened in Malcolm’s humble Miami motel room for a low-key celebration.
That really happened.
What went on inside we don’t know and might never know. The only survivor is Brown and, to his credit, he’s not talking. It’s a pretty safe guess, though, that whatever happened was more fun, insightful, and interesting than this waste of a movie.
Director Regina King’s One Night In Miami (Kemp Powers wrote the screenplay) just premiered on Amazon and imagines what these four superstars might have had to say about themselves, each other, and the world; and somehow turns it into a didactic, stagey, claustrophobic, charisma-free slog that basically (and unfairly) smears Cooke as a sellout and Malcolm X as a woke scold.
I’ll get to the details below but the overall problem with One Night In Miami is that I didn’t believe a single moment. Not one.
To begin with, we’re never introduced to human beings. Instead, we meet puppets, symbols, walking-ideologies who only look like four of the most famous men who ever strode the earth… Somehow, the movie takes this complicated and fascinating foursome and boils them down into what a mindless and shallow social justice warrior needs them to be. Instead of something close to living, breathing human beings, we get cyborgs performing one-dimensional impressions designed to hit all of MSNBC’s sweet spots.
Worse still, the impressions never end. Although these guys were indeed close friends in real life, we’re supposed to believe that behind closed doors they would still hold on to their public personas. Ali’s always mugging and calling himself pretty. Malcolm’s always preaching. Brown’s always smoldering. The only character knocked out of his comfort zone is Cooke but that’s only because he’s dishonestly attacked as an Uncle Tom.
Let me start with that…
The meat of the movie is a joyless and pious Malcolm X hectoring and shaming Cooke for selling out. You know, playing to white audiences, writing silly songs, not being down enough with the struggle. Malcolm even shames him by playing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind” (does anyone believe Malcolm X carried Bob Dylan albums in his luggage?). “You should have written that, a black man should have write that!” Malcolm says in so many words.
Cooke’s response? He has none. He just got owned, so he storms out of the room to go buy some liquor. Except…
In real life, by the time the night in question arrived, Cooke had already written and recorded “Chain Gang” (1960), as well as — brace yourselves — “A Change Is Gonna Come,” the most stirring song about civil rights ever recorded.
What’s more, the idea that Malcolm X, a man whose primary (secular) mission was to see the black man become self-sufficient, would have been anything other than thrilled by Cooke’s crusading entrepreneurialism, is ludicrous. Cooke (along with singer James Brown) was a true racial groundbreaker in the world of the music business. He demanded ownership of his songs, built a publishing house for himself and other black artists, and produced and promoted black artists. Cooke was a black man, not only taking control of his own destiny, but using his fame and fortune to boost other black artists. That’s not only as self-reliant as it gets, it epitomizes a black man using his fame to lift up his black brothers.
According to the movie, though, Malcolm was furious with Cooke for not being bold and outspoken enough. Even that’s a lie…
Good grief, five years — five — before the movie is set, Sam Cooke was down South refusing to perform for segregated audiences. Cooke was doing that in 1959. And he was winning those arguments in 1959. This was years and years before the Civil Rights movement took any kind of hold.
On top of those big problems are countless little ones that gall. We’re led to believe Cooke bombed at New York’s famous Copacabana in 1963 because white people had no interest in a black singer. Are you kidding me? First off, while Cooke did flop at the Copa, it was five years earlier (in 1958), but had nothing to do with skin color. Black artists had been playing the Copa for decades already. He flopped because instead of being Sam Cooke, instead of being himself, he sang songs he believed white people wanted to hear. So when he returned to the Copa in late 1964, instead of singing “The Girl from Ipanema,” he showed up as Sam Cooke and triumphed. Listen for yourself.
Are we really supposed to believe Ali would criticize Brown for taking a role in the studio Western film Rio Conchos (1964)? Are we really supposed to believe Ali would basically accuse Brown of selling out for appearing in a movie where his character, a black action hero dies? By this time, Ali was already interested in performing and had appeared as himself in a movie — Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) — as well as released an album.
Sadly, the entire movie is built on moments like this — a relentless stream of dishonest, patronizing, sanctimonious, joyless, woke talking points. And it’s so phony, so artificial, so smug, so contrived, so phony, you don’t buy into a single moment of it.
Other than Cooke, no one is smeared worse than Malcolm X, who comes off as a charmless, judgmental hall monitor. Nothing that made Malcolm X Malcolm X is on display here. None of his charisma, warmth, sharp wit, or brilliance. He’s a tiresome bore.
And then, as if these characters weren’t already walking Cliff Notes, there’s all the self-conscious and annoying Easter eggs. A contrived shot of Ali’s famous underwater photos? Check. Malcolm mentions a trip to Mecca? Check. Malcolm recreates his most famous poses? Check. Ali walks around calling himself pretty? Check. This stuff is non-stop and another reminder that the director is not interested in actual human beings, but props spouting what she needs them to say.
Nothing about One Night In Miami works. Nothing. It’s a tiresome harangue that looks like a low-budget Mad Men episode shot through an orange filter.
If you’re interested in learning about the real people (Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali are two of my favorite Americans), you can start with Spike Lee’s 1992 masterpiece Malcolm X, and then try these books: here, here, here, here, here, and here.
One Night In Miami looks cheap, is every bit as contained as the stage play it’s based on, and so simple-minded and one-dimensional you have to believe that staging took place in a high school.