One Night in Miami review – high-concept quartet of 1960s African American icons | Film

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One Night in Miami is a fluent, high-minded, if sometimes slightly inert movie, with an invigorating interest in ideas and debate – and it begins with a brutally effective sucker-punch of racism from the Jim Crow/antebellum world. Regina King directs with flair, working from the script that Kemp Powers (co-director of Pixar’s Soul) has adapted from his own stage play. This is a Stoppardian high-concept display, imagining the conversation of four legendary African Americans who really did come together in Miami in 1964 after the boxing victory of Cassius Clay (as he then was) over Sonny Liston. The world is about to change, and they are ringside.

Eli Goree plays Clay, euphoric and slightly terrified by his own emerging greatness; Kingsley Ben-Adir is Malcolm X, keen to nail down Clay’s private promises to convert to Islam; Aldis Hodge is Jim Brown, the NFL megastar thinking of going into the movies; and Leslie Odom Jr is soul singer Sam Cooke, under fire for going along with the white music establishment. The movie puts them all in the same motel room – Malcolm X’s – and this is to be, to quote the Hamilton musical, the room where it happens; or at any rate, where what’s going to happen gets talked about. (Without comment, King lets us absorb the faint echo of the Lorraine motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968.) Meanwhile, wives and children get distractedly phoned up, but women themselves are absent from the action and debate.

Chiefly at stake is the world of Malcolm X, about to break away and start his own organisation, and so tensely aware that claiming Clay as a prestige convert would be of enormous help. Clay is suddenly unsure if abandoning all that delicious secular pleasure is what he wants to do. Brown feels sports have got him just as far as they’re going to, and that maybe he can cash in his celebrity capital and transfer it to the movies. Cooke angrily defends his own career, proclaiming the real black power of his lucrative music publishing empire.

One exchange between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke rang a little false for me. Cooke has just told them how the Rolling Stones have covered a tune written by his contracted protege Bobby Womack: It’s All Over Now, doing far better with it than any black star. Then Malcolm X tauntingly asks him how it is that Bob Dylan can make the kind of chart-topping protest music that black people should be doing. Well, the obvious answer is – because Dylan is white. Hasn’t Cooke already explained this? Hasn’t he given him the example of Bobby Womack and the Rolling Stones recording the same song? But Cooke and the movie itself are weirdly reluctant to spell it out, perhaps because Dylan is another icon-ally on the right side of history. At any rate, it’s an engaging and spirited piece of work.

• One Night in Miami is released in cinemas on 26 December, and on 15 January on Amazon Prime Video.

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Source: The Guardian
Keyword: One Night in Miami review – high-concept quartet of 1960s African American icons | Film

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