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When We Were Kings

Patti Perret/Amazon Studios

One Night in Miami . . . (2020)

As a set-up, it’s almost too good to be true: After Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) won the heavyweight boxing title over Sonny Liston in Miami in February 1964, his afterparty was with singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), American football superstar Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and revolutionary Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). The movie is an almost-real-time exploration of an hour they (may or may not have) spent together in Malcolm’s hotel room before going out to the diner where the well-known picture of the four of them was taken. The screenplay is very obviously based on a stage play (both by Kemp Powers), but director Regina King uses her camera and the space available to show us an entire world.

That world, in brief, in one where black excellence is constrained on all sides by white people. Whether it’s overt racism – Beau Bridges has a killer cameo at the beginning designed to remind people too young to remember what these men were up against – or more covert disapproval, such as the walkouts Sam must watch from the moment he walks onstage for a major concert, the world of these men is hemmed in despite all their talent, good humor and beauty. (When Cassius freezes while looking at his reflection, so the others gather round in concern, then asks, “Why am I so pretty?” Everyone cracks up.) The main reason they are together in Malcolm’s hotel room is not only because of the omnipresent threats to his safety, but also because, now that he has won the fight, Cassius plans to announce his conversion to Islam and rejection of his slave name to the world. Jim and Sam both have concerns; and as the men talk, the issue they always circle back to is what is the best way to maintain the power they currently have. Malcolm isn’t impressed with Sam’s choice of song topics, despite Sam owning the masters to his music. Cassius isn’t impressed with Jim’s decision to switch from playing professional sports to acting in movies. Jim – who is shown to be the most emotionally intelligent of the four, with the deepest reserves of empathy – isn’t impressed with Malcolm’s militancy, and questions whether this stems from his being light-skinned, and needing to emphasize his blackness in a way which the others obviously don’t. And Sam isn’t impressed with Cassius’s switch to Islam, especially as Malcolm’s ulterior motives come to light.

There are no earth-shattering events here, but to hear issues of such specific importance and universal relevance talked among four friends – who all realize that there are very few other people in the world who can understand them – is a special treat. And, especially considering the majority of the action takes place in one crappy hotel room, the movie looks fantastic. It’s beautifully and sharply lit, and Ms. King stages the action carefully and thoughtfully, ensuring constant life and movement belying the limited space.

It’s an actor’s movie, and Ms. King – who was formerly better known as an actress – and her cinematographer Tami Reiker wring every drop out of the space and the framing to ensure that our focus shifts around the room with the mood of the men. The pressure Malcolm is under is heavily emphasized, what with the Nation of Islam bodyguards on the door and menacing white men in the parking lots, but Ms. King also goes to great pains to show him as a loving father and caring husband, deeply aware of the stakes for his wife and daughters as well as himself. Mr. Ben-Adir is a rising star, primarily in British television, with a smile to melt an iceberg and the centered calm that implies great feelings under great control. The Malcolm we see in private here is keen on photography, showing off his fancy new camera, and a big music fan. The only break in the narrative is when he tells the group about a concert of Sam’s and how impressed he was with Sam’s ability to hold a room despite the mikes being cut.

Mr. Odom is a piece of dream casting, who does all his own singing, and has the most obvious talent on display here. Mr. Goree, who has been acting in television since early childhood himself, is not just a terrific lookalike to Muhammad Ali, but also captures his manic intelligence and big-hearted glee at how the world is about to open up to him. It’s a big ask, playing the most famous person in the world, but he meets the challenge. Mr. Hodge has the easiest time of it, since Brown’s public persona is not as well remembered as the others even though he is the only one still living. But Mr. Hodge’s ability to convey changed understanding through body language – not even necessarily a shift in facial expression – means he more than matches the others. It’s Jim the others confide in, separately; and it’s Jim who manages to sum up the shifting mood of the night in pithy sentences. He also maintains he could never become a Muslim because of his grandmother’s pork chops, which makes even Malcolm laugh. The coda after they leave the hotel room, which quickly and beautifully sums up the next steps made based on the decisions of this night, is a heart-breaking reminder of how little laughter there was ahead of him. But if you’re working to change the world, sometimes one night is enough.


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