Many of the persons my dad was interested in captured my interest. I do not know what other father’s talked about with their sons, but mine brought me up with tales of Napoleon’s campaigns. That is how I developed my love of history. Our other shared love was sports. Baseball was my first passion, and one my earliest memories is being at Wrigley Field as a child with my family and seeing my cherished Cubs. As I got older and my sporting horizons expanded, one figure my dad always spoke of with an awe and reverence was Muhammad Ali. Perhaps this was a function of the fame of certain boxing icons of the late 1980s and into the 1990s, people like Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, that brought up the Louisville Lip. Thus when Ali came out in 2001, a role for which Will Smith should have won an Oscar, we promptly went to the cinema. Since then, it has been hard to get good cinematic depictions of the greatest boxer of all time (yes, I said it). That is, until One Night in Miami (2020).
Not that One Night in Miami is just about Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), though at the point during which the film is set he is still going by his birth name Cassius Clay. That is also part of the problem in describing the movie. It depicts a fictional meeting between Clay, civil rights leader Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cleveland Browns star running back Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and hit musician Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.). Each of these giants demand a great deal of attention, but any film with a basically four main characters runs the risk of being a plotless mess. Thankfully, that is not the case here, and I believe this was helped by the fact that this was first a play. It starts off with a series of short scenes that introduce each character and their struggles with their careers and, more specifically, with race. And even though the party that proceed’s Clay’s victory never happened as depicted, if you know a bit about each person it makes it seem authentic. For example, they all arrive at Malcolm X’s hotel room prepared for some post-bout revelry, and the straight-laced former Nation of Islam minister is very excited that he only has ice cream for the four. What unfolds is a sometimes contentious, sometimes enlightening interaction between a group of individuals that history remembers as being among the most influential African Americans in history, let alone the tumultuous 1960s. It is tense because a bulk of the time they spend together involves Malcolm X getting on Cooke’s case for not making more socially conscious music. Cooke is defensive, proud of the economic success he has achieved in an industry largely controlled by whites, and accuses Malcolm X of being a pariah. For their parts, Clay and Brown attempt to be peacemakers with varying degrees of success. Each of them are questioned as well. Clay, being the youngest, is on the cusp of converting to Islam (or at least the Nation of Islam version of it). Yet there are aspects of his chosen faith that he is not yet completely on board with, like being a teetotaler. He is also initially disturbed when he discovers that Malcolm X is leaving the Nation of Islam. Brown is a little more direct. Tired of being dictated to by the white owned Cleveland Browns and the National Football League (NFL) overall, he talks up a small movie role he accepted with which his football managers are not comfortable. When Malcolm X tries to get the footballer to become a Muslim, Brown says bluntly that he is not ready to give up pork and white women. What brings them all back together is a story Malcolm X tells about seeing Cooke perform once before where the sound system failed just as his band was about to play. Undeterred, Cooke improvises a crowd chant to the “Chain Gang” song. While the famous orator Malcolm X is already aware of the power they possess, it makes the other three realize their platforms are greater than they know.
I realize that the previous paragraph does not make One Night in Miami seem like much of a movie. Most of it is just four guys talking in a room. As I mentioned previously, though, what makes watching the film a worthy endeavor is understanding each character. While the meeting of these four may not have actually happened, all four were in Miami when Clay won his first World Heavy Weight Title in 1964. It is slightly irritating to have the fighter uttering some of Muhammad Ali’s catchphrases, like “rumble, young man, rumble,” as if he could be reduced to a set of one liners. Then again, what else do you do with such a figure? Of the four, the most enigmatic is Jim Brown. The movie rightly points out how he had been setting every record a running back could have, and the other three thought that is all there is to him. In real life, though, Brown walked away from football at the height of his career to pursue acting. It was a decision for himself and no one else, and the film underscores how his renown as an athlete gave him the clout to make such a move. A similar argument could be made for all four.
Can a film like One Night in Miami featuring two avowed Muslims be palatable to a Catholic audience? Of course it can! Granted, it is the most exciting of movies, but it is interesting. I will try not to be too pandering, but it is worth pointing out that several priests and nuns took part in the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. More broadly, the film is a wonderful treatise on the dignity we all have as God’s creations, which part of why you saw male and female religious marching in the 1960s. One can look at Malcolm X’s early career and see him as essentially a hate-monger, particularly for whites. During the film, he alludes to a pilgrimage, or Hajj, that he is about to undertake to Mecca. Though not shown, historically speaking this opened the minister’s eyes to a fact not realized while in the Nation of Islam: there are Muslims of all colors, black and white and everything in between. Though he was assassinated a little over a year after the events here depicted, one of the last moments we see him in the movie is with Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, his hand resting on the manuscript. In this book, you see that he was far more accepting in his last year of life than he ever was with the Nation of Islam. While his goal remained to uplift African Americans, freeing them from centuries of oppression, he was willing to work with anyone who was aligned with that endeavor. Our Faith is also committed to combatting racial inequality, and has been so for centuries, despite a few hiccups along the way. Doing so carries forward Jesus’s message of peace.
I might have been late to the game with One Night in Miami. All I know is that it was not in the theater the previous weekend, but was there this last one. Unfortunately it seems we are back to the small crowds in theaters as I shared it with only two other peoples. If you wish to see a good drama that, though not completely historically correct, does speak well to the characters of four important, then you can do worse than seeing this one. I believe it is available on Amazon Prime, so if you do not yet feel comfortable going to theaters, then you can still view it. It is a film for adults, but nothing too terrible beyond a little drinking and foul language. It is a solid piece of cinema, despite its limited setting.