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The premise is the Fantasy Football of drama: imagine a select bunch of historical figures, together in one room, putting the world to rights. Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties (Lenin, Tzara, James Joyce) set the trend, and more recently, Kemp Powers’s 2013 play One Night in Miami imagined a summit between four African-American legends: Malcolm X, Cassius Clay (soon to become Muhammad Ali), football hero turned movie star Jim Brown and soul legend Sam Cooke. In fact, these four really did meet in Miami in February 1964.
Powers has now adapted his play for the debut feature by actor and director Regina King (TV’s Watchmen, Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk). King opens out Powers’s drama somewhat, notably in an extended intro, but the action is largely restricted to a single hotel room. The occasion for the meeting is the Clay-Sonny Liston fight in Miami – after which Malcolm X summons the other three to celebrate Clay’s championship win. The guests expect a party, only to find that their sober-minded host intends an evening of “reflection” – with ice cream the only refreshment.
The ensuing conversation reveals the tensions underlying a pivotal moment for black America: Clay (Eli Goree) is about to join the Nation of Islam, only to learn that his mentor Malcolm is leaving the movement. Brown (Aldis Hodge) is planning to hang up his helmet and act full-time, while Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr), already a massive soul star, is musing over the meaning and value of his artistry. The most heated moment comes when Malcolm X berates Cooke for not writing a song as politically eloquent as Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind. Soul fans will guess that before long, we’ll hear Cooke performing a number of his own that proved just as inspiring an anthem of its time.
King, cinematographer Tami Reiker and designer Barry Robison mount a vivid, meticulous evocation of the period, with locales including poolsides, sports stadiums and the venues where Cooke sings. But the film is above all an enclosed talking piece for four terrific actors. Perhaps inevitably, Goree’s Clay lights up the screen whenever he talks – revealing the acuteness and sensitivity beneath the showmanship – with Hodge’s Brown as a saturnine, sceptical foil. But the meat of the meet lies in the interplay between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke – not least, perhaps, because we know their deaths were just around the corner. British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir is magnetic as the careworn, austere political leader, evoking the tenderness and well-concealed joie de vivre underneath the severity, while Odom’s Cooke shows self-examination as well as radiant insouciance.
This is undeniably a very theatrical film, but it never hides that – indeed, it makes the most of a certain claustrophobia. It’s an immensely watchable evocation of a moment when black America was on the verge of an upheaval that continues to resonate, in 2020 as strongly as ever. It absolutely puts you – to coin a phrase of the time – in the room where it happened.
Source: The Guardian
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