Some films seem to have the perfect timing of release to remind us that the earnest struggles of our past remain at the forefront of our future. Such is the case with the critically acclaimed “One Night in Miami,” which has received Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Leslie Odom Jr.’s portrayal of the legendary singer and songwriter Sam Cooke.
“One Night in Miami” is the profound directorial debut of Regina King, who won the 2019 Academy Award for best supporting actress in “If Beale Street Could Talk.” In “One Night in Miami,” King brings the work of playwright Kemp Powers to the big screen, which is a fictional account of the intense 1964 gathering of Cassius Clay (before he transitions into Muhammad Ali) with Cooke, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), and NFL great Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge).
Clay (Eli Goree) has just shocked the boxing world with his upset of Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion at the tender age of 22. Clay’s audacious charisma instantly made him a sports media star, although a polarizing one, as he began to align with the radical tenets of the Nation of Islam through his friendship with Malcolm X. Clay had a big mouth, and he was certainly big enough physically to back up anything he said, but the words that Powers imagined Clay and his iconic friends exchanging that February night at the Hampton House reveal an intense inner conflict. It is a conflict that wrestles with the core of their souls, the nature of how they view themselves as influential Black men in the prime of their lives during the civil rights movement.
In my Sports Icons class at The Ohio State University Lima campus, we covered the civil rights era earlier in the semester, focusing on how Ali and Brown were using their platforms as black athletes to fight for social justice. We’ve discussed Brown’s emphasis on economic empowerment for the black community and Ali’s determination to frame his own media narrative while refusing to fight in Vietnam.
The central question that we are analyzing now with Michael Jordan and Colin Kaepernick is do black athletes bear a responsibility to take part in social activism? This question provides the climax and drama in “One Night in Miami,” as Cooke’s impact in the music industry is also addressed. In a heated scene, Malcolm X yells that there is “no more room for anyone to be standing on the fence anymore … a line has got to be drawn in the sand!” And while he was speaking to the crisis of racial violence in the country during this moment, Cooke calls him out on his generalized distrust and hatred of white people.
As the exchanges continue to escalate and then simmer down throughout the evening, Malcolm X desperately appeals to Brown that he, along with Clay and Cooke, need to be “weapons” in order to win freedom for Blacks. The only thing the four men agree on by the end of their rousing get-together is that they want to live in a country where they are safe to be themselves.
In reflecting further on “One Night in Miami’s” conclusion, I thought about remarks the late Rev. C.T. Vivian, a civil rights minister who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., made seven years ago regarding the worth of a Black man in America. The major conflict presented in the film is one of worth, and Malcolm X, Clay, Cooke and Brown all grapple with their worth in terms of how they believe they are viewed by whites. Vivian stated that many African Americans are confused about their value, and he attributed this to the legacy of slavery. However, he made the point that in spite of this dilemma he preferred to love even while enduring the cruelty of racism because “God is a God of love, truth and justice.”
For Vivian, the love of God through Christ validated his worth as a man, and it liberated him from being distressed about whether whites considered him deserving of equal treatment. I’ve always believed that Malcolm X, Clay, Cooke and Brown, as brilliant as they were as young men, bore this tormenting burden of constantly trying to prove they were deserving. “One Night in Miami” shows that this is too great of a burden to bear.
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