Imagine: It’s the night of Feb. 25, 1964. Cassius Clay, a 7-1 underdog, has just defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world.
Now he’s celebrating his victory with three close friends: civil-rights activist Malcolm X, football superstar Jim Brown and the great singer-songwriter Sam Cooke.
Sounds like a fantasy, right? But it really happened.
Exactly what occurred, and what was talked about, among those friends that night is another matter. The sole survivor, Brown, could give us his perspective. Otherwise, apparently, not that much is known about that night.
“One Night in Miami” (115 minutes, rated R, in theaters and on Prime Video), the feature-film directorial debut of Oscar-winning actress Regina King, imagines how things unfolded. Adapted by screenwriter Kemp Powers from his own stage play, the drama depicts the four men, all clearly powerhouses in their chosen fields, discussing their lives, their careers, their beliefs, and, most especially, their roles as black leaders and role models in the civil-rights era.
Though Clay (Eli Goree) and his boxing triumph has brought the men together, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) is the catalyst for the intense, often heated, conversations that take place. An outspoken, controversial critic of white society and one of the leading spokesmen for the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X has persuaded Clay to join the Nation himself. It’s on this night that they’re going to tell Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), who are not members, about Clay’s conversion (which will soon lead to his changing his name to Muhammad Ali).
This leads to a discussion on how the men use their celebrity to further the cause of their fellow black Americans. Malcolm X is particularly critical of Cooke, suggesting that he’s too concerned with appealing to white audiences with innocuous songs like “You Send Me” instead of using his voice — literally — to deliver songs of social, political and cultural relevance. Stung by Malcolm’s words, Cooke lashes back, while maintaining that, by using his success to start his own music company and providing opportunities for other black performers, he is making an important difference in his own way.
And so it goes, with each man weighing the decisions they make, not only for personal benefit but for an oppressed people who look up to them.
The result is a powerful, beautifully acted drama that, impressively, lacks contrivance. You never, for instance, get the sense that the four central characters are each supplied a “moment” to consider their particular circumstance. The characters are developed naturally, through what they say, how they say it, how they react — or don’t react — to the proceedings.
One thing is clear: As much as these men argue, as angry as they get at each other at times, they love and respect each other, too. “One Night in Miami” shows just how important that is in the scheme of things.
Several Cooke songs are played, and Odom, who starred as Aaron Burr on Broadway in the musical “Hamilton,” performs all of them. If the Cooke song that ends the film doesn’t leave you choked with emotion, I don’t know what will. **** (out of four)
And now few words from Shawn…
I’m blessed to have a lot of incredibly funny friends, and one of the funniest is Shawn Fitzgerald, a former Cape Codder now living in the Boston area.
He recently sent me an email about Hitchcock’s “The Birds” that cracked me up. Here it is, presented with the author’s permission (to appreciate it fully, you’ll have to have seen the movie, of course):
Ten Things I Learned Watching “The Birds”:
1. The second half is creepy and hilarious at the same time.
2. Melanie Griffith’s mom was not a particularly good actress, but was insanely hot in the ‘60s.
3. Rod Taylor’s character really “loved” his mother.
4. Birds are badass.
5. Rodan should have made an appearance as the main bad bird.
6. No massive amounts of bird poop knocks the realism down a notch.
7-10. See No. 2.
OK, I (Tim, that is) am back. Regarding No. 2 (and Nos. 7-10), Shawn is referring to Tippi Hedren, also Dakota Johnson’s grandmother, who later starred in Hitchcock’s “Marnie” opposite Sean Connery. She turned 91 on Jan. 19. (Happy birthday, Tippi.)
I teach film at Cape Cod Community College, and this semester I’m teaching International Cinema, which might be my favorite course of all. And you can take it, too, if you want (nobody’s going to force you), as a guest student. It’s a great way to see a lot of amazing movies and get to discuss them in depth with others.
And you don’t have to move from your home to take part. You can even live in Iceland! (I’ve been to Reykjavik; nice place.) The class will be held remotely, with discussions on Zoom and links provided for films, from 3:30 to (around) 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays, starting Jan. 27 — in other words, really soon.
Each week we cover a foreign film, which can be anything from Fritz Lang’s intense 1930 drama “M” to Taiki Waititi’s hilarious “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” from 2016. I give lectures/introductions on the films (along with related information — historical context, for instance), and lead discussions with students on every movie (my favorite part of the class). Students also write short critiques on the films.
To join, to go https://www.capecod.edu/register/ and then scroll down and click on “Guest Student.”
Tim Miller is a Cape-based member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He and music producer Tony Raine host “Tim ’n’ Tony’s Rock ’n’ Pop Show” from midnight to 3 a.m. Sunday nights/Monday mornings on WOMR (92.1-FM), WFMR (91.3-FM) and womr.org. Archived recordings of the shows can be found at https://womr.org/schedule/broadcast-archive/. He also teaches film at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic.
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