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The young men chattered as we entered the hotel lounge, a small room brightened by light blue walls and a yellow bar. Taking seats at the retro counter, their locs swayed as they relaxed into the colorful chairs.
I had organized this trip to Miami for a group of young Black men from New Orleans. My goal was for them to meet local organizers and cultural workers empowering Black youth in the city—folks like Dream Defenders and the team behind Smoke Signals Studios.
That day, we took a trip to the Historic Hampton House. Located in the Brownsville neighborhood, this iconic hotel—a cultural center for Black people during the 1950s and 1960s of segregated Miami—had once been a popular place for Black folks to socialize. The who's who of celebrities made history at this establishment: Martin Luther King Jr., James Brown, Althea Johnson, Nat King Cole—the list goes on.
Huddled around the bar, the tour guide told us a story that caught all of our attention: a special night when Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, and Malcolm X came here to celebrate Ali's victory as heavyweight champion of the world.
The tour guide showed us a photograph taken that particular night: Malcolm X taking a picture of his famous friends in the same room we were sitting in now. For just a moment, a hush descended over the usually talkative group.
These young Black men, who were all in the process of understanding their own identity and manhood, would have been peers of Ali at that time. These men were just learning how to embrace a kind of Blackness and masculinity that allowed them to feel a complexity of emotions: vulnerability, pride, tenderness, rage. They began to buzz with eager questions about what Ali, Jim, Malcolm, and Sam talked about that night.
I craved to know too. With all of these legends in one room, my mind swirled with thoughts about what this group could have learned from them. What exactly were these four men talking about that night, so many years ago?
A new film, "One Night in Miami", attempts to imagine what could have transpired at the Hampton House when revolutionary leader Malcolm X, boxing champ Cassius Clay—soon to be known as Muhammad Ali—NFL MVP Jim Brown, and soulful crooner Sam Cooke celebrated together.
While photographs prove they spent that evening together, there isn't a direct account of what occurred behind closed doors. All we know for sure is that vanilla ice cream was served.
"One Night in Miami" provides a window into possible intimate conversations between the four friends about identity, self-determination, and freedom—conversations we are still having today.
Expectations for the film were high. "One Night in Miami" is the feature film directorial debut of Regina King, four-time Emmy award-winning actress and talented television director. As an actor's director, King's understanding of the physical, mental, and often spiritual processes required for an actor to become a character enabled her to guide the film's four leads as they boldly stepped into the shoes of legends.
Each of the actors rose to the occasion. With these grand men as protagonists, the film could have easily become bogged down with the pressure to depict them as they lived as public figures. However, in "One Night in Miami", the big personas of the four Black icons are successfully stripped away, laying bare a more intimate portraiture of their desires, hopes, and fears. It is a glimpse into the interior lives of Malcolm, Jim, Sam, and Cassius.
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Under King's direction and cinematographer Tami Reiker's fluency with the camera, their relationships are given more space to expand and move. There are no intense action scenes in "One Night in Miami", except for the depiction of two boxing matches. Instead, the film provides a slow, steady, and contemplative story that predominantly takes place in a single hotel room. It is a cinematic accomplishment to shoot an entire film in one location and make it feel expansive on screen, rather than claustrophobic. The camera glides with ease and flows from character to character, sometimes lingering on their faces well after they speak, thus taking the viewer on an exclusive ride, as though the audience were truly a fly on the wall.
Each of the four men brings with them their own vulnerabilities and internal battles that are exacerbated by white power structures when they gather at the Hampton. The critical issues of movement work, persecution, death, and economic autonomy that surface in their dialogue still hold true, 60 years later. Film executive producer and screenwriter Kemp Powers spoke on the script's enduring relevance. "It was never meant to be written for today," he told The LA Times. The fact that the themes in this film are still relevant is depressing, Powers admits. "What I look forward to, is when it's a time capsule."
Whether it was his intention or not, the personal and collective struggles of the four Black men are revealed through a script that sparked humor, anger, and reflection in the characters and the audience alike.
For instance, it is such a joyously warm scene immediately after Cassius Clay—played by Eli Goree—wins the boxing championship and the arena goes wild. Reporters flood the boxing ring to talk to the new champion, but all Cassius cares to do is to shout out his friends. The palpable excitement continues on the way to the hotel room at the Hampton House. For five minutes, these four men cannot contain their jubilation.
Goree embodies a rambunctious and playful Cassius, skipping with glee as his friends chuckle at the sight of their exuberant friends. It is a beautiful sight to see the wide grins plastered on their faces and playful tussling between four grown men. For a split second, it's as though they transform into boisterous young boys.
On the first watch, I was drawn to this film by a curiosity for these larger-than-life legends, but I later loved the film for its effortless depiction of four friends and the intimacy of their brotherhood.
At the peak of the story, there is a significant argument between Sam Cooke—played by Leslie Odom Jr.—and Malcolm X, depicted by British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir. Sam argues that he is just as much a contributor to the Black movement because he owns his masters, and thus has the economic freedom to produce Black artists and share access to wealth. To Malcolm, however, those contributions remain meaningless while Black people are still fighting for their lives in the streets.
Capitalism and philanthropy versus collective movement and system dismantlement and their opposing views of how Black people with influence and power should participate in the movement relate to many heated arguments that currently flood organizing spaces.
Eventually, Malcolm refers to Sam as a "bourgeois Negro" and Sam stubbornly fires back to his opponent, albeit quietly under his breath, "You-back-never-facin'-the-door-bean-pie-eatin'-self-righteous-motherfu—" in a quick reprieve of humor—until the argument reaches a boiling point and Sam storms out. Cassius follows to console him and Jim, played by actor Aldis Hodge, remains with Malcolm.
Each duo has a special conversation that allows the walls of pride to fall. As Jim and Malcolm exchange stories of life and struggle as Black men, Malcolm can't keep up his facade anymore and breaks down. Jim, attuned to his friend, sees that he is carrying too many burdens, and moves toward him with deep concern: "Brother, talk to me. What's going on?"
Malcolm looks his friend in the eye, and before he answers, we are taken to the next scene with Sam and Cassius in the car outside of the liquor store. Sam is complaining about Malcolm's self-righteous antics. Cassius listens to his rant and then offers, "We have to be there for each other."
"Why?" Sam asks.
"Because can't nobody else understand what it's like being one of us, except us," Cassius answers.
Sam shifts his head and glances at his friend. "One of us?"
Cassius takes a beat before he specifies, "You know. Young, Black, righteous, famous, unapologetic."
Seeing the power of these great Black men as they share their hopes and fears on the screen made me think back to the group of young men I was with at the Hampton House those years ago, and the dreams and aspirations they shared with each other as they walked through those historical halls, beginning to envision the impact they hoped to leave on future generations.
Kemp Powers revealed to LA Times that he wrote "One Night in Miami" to inspire and to show youth that the social movements we read about in history textbooks were in fact led by young people, just as movements are led by youth today.
As the young people of this country carry on this summers' uprisings affirmations that Black lives matter, we yearn for ways to wrest ourselves from the grip of racial trauma and violence. "One Night in Miami" provides a timely and personal view of Black men who have been endlessly wounded by oppressive structural systems, yet remain together despite their differences through vulnerability, friendship, and commitment.
This is how Black folks have survived in this country. We fight for each other, even if we are fighting with each other. Through the love that Malcolm, Jim, Sam, and Cassius share, we encounter a simple truth: We are all we got, and we need each other. The we here can be family, friends, neighbors, strangers—whoever shares our burden of freedom and survival, even if it's only for one night.