He always said he was the greatest. On Feb. 25, 1964, Cassius Clay proved it.
That night, Clay took down Sonny Liston, boxing’s heavyweight champion, in six rounds. (Liston didn’t answer the bell for the seventh.) “I’m champion of the world!” Clay bellowed after the fight. And who could blame him for wanting to celebrate?
But Malcolm X, a spokesman for the inflammatory Nation of Islam and Clay’s close friend, had other ideas.
In the aftermath of the fight, he invited Clay to his hotel room, along with a couple of high-powered mutual friends: NFL running back Jim Brown and soul singer Sam Cooke. No one else is coming, Malcolm tells his guests: It’ll just be the four of them.
“Just because I’m militant doesn’t mean I don’t know how to have a good time,” Malcolm reassures them. He pulls a gallon of vanilla ice cream out of the hotel refrigerator.
But it soon becomes clear that this night isn’t so much a party as it is a summit: Cassius is set to announce that he’s Muslim the very next day. And while Maclolm X isn’t asking for that sort of commitment from Jim or Sam, he does want them—especially Sam—to stand up and be counted on the right side of the Civil Rights battle: his side.
But soon, all of them will wrestle in that hotel room with how each of them perceives the Civil Rights movement—and whether that movement is as black and white, if you will, as Malcolm X contends it is.
Malcolm X isn’t lying when he says he’s a militant. In this film, as in real life, he’s an agitator—one who’s ready, willing and eager to aggressively take the power that he believes has long been kept from his race. That has, obviously, made him a controversial figure, both then and now.
But the film paints Malcolm not just as an inflammatory advocate, but a devoted family man. It lingers on a call he makes back home, to his wife and daughters, showing how deeply he cares for them. He neither drinks nor smokes, and he’s thinking about breaking away from the Nation of Islam because of the hypocrisy of its leadership. His faithfulness to his wife and family makes for a sharp contrast between he and (married but less faithful) Sam. Malcolm practices what he preaches, and there’s something to be said for that.
Malcolm expresses something that borders on horror for Sam’s own career: singing inoffensive songs for mostly white audiences. He suggests that Cooke is no better than a monkey performing for an organ grinder. But Sam has his eye on Civil Rights, too, and he’s working toward equality in his own way. He notes that he has given many black musicians their start. He savvily leveraged the success of the British invasion, allowing groups such as The Rolling Stones to record songs from his own artists (turning them into huge hits along the way). “Don’t you think my determining my creative and business destiny is every bit as inspiring to people as you standing up on a podium trying to p-ss them off?” he shouts at Malcolm.
[Spoiler Warning] But he’s also convicted when Malcolm tells him that Bob Dylan’s song “Blowing in the Wind” speaks more clearly to the struggles of Black Americans than any tune Sam’s ever sung. And after the Miami conference, Sam sings the Civil Rights-focused song “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
One Night in Miami doesn’t soft pedal Malcolm and Clay’s shared Islamic faith. We see and hear it referenced often.
Clay visits Malcolm before the fight—“No way I’m going into that ring without my insurance policy,” he says—and the two pray toward Mecca (with Malcolm gently correcting Clay’s hand positions as they do). Afterward, Clay says that when he was weighed in, he was carrying a half-pound of divine blessing with him. “If tonight don’t prove that God isn’t with me, then nothing does,” he says.
Malcolm says he’s getting set to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, and he invites the others to come along. Several people proclaim that “God is great,” and we see part of a Nation of Islam worship service (where Clay renounces his name and embraces the name Muhammed Ali).
But at one point, Sam questions Malcolm’s faith, and at times people talk about religion as being more of a tool than a true demonstration of devotion. One of Malcolm’s bodyguards says his only regret about becoming a Muslim is that he didn’t become one sooner—because it would’ve made his life easier as a kid when people picked on him.
“You don’t need religion for that, kid,” Jim Brown says. “You could just join a d–n gang.”
“What’s the d–n difference?” the bodyguard says.
Brown says that he’s not likely to join the Nation of Islam anytime soon, because he enjoys his grandmother’s pork chops too much (suggesting that his family would ostracize him if he converted). Malcolm doesn’t denigrate Christianity, but he does accuse Sam of co-opting the “church songs that nurtured you.” Sam retorts that he’s given loads of money back to the Church, and most of the people he works with are gospel singers.
Malcolm grieves over the hypocrisy of the Nation of Islam’s leadership. His wife wonders why people don’t do something about it, and Malcolm suggests that perhaps no one’s ready—comparing it to a Christian who’d not leave the faith if he learned that Jesus wasn’t who he thought he was.
We hear a television journalist talk about the Nation of Islam’s “Gospel of Hate.”
Cooke (who in real life fathered children out of wedlock) seems to be pretty disinterested in his current wife (his second). Jim Brown is initially disappointed with the gathering, because he was hoping to hook up with someone (or perhaps several someones) that evening. He also says that he’d never be able to fit in with the Nation of Islam because his promiscuity.
Before the meeting in Miami, Malcolm and his wife talk about the hypocrisy of the group’s leader, Elijah Muhammed—especially of his many reputed affairs. “You told (a Nation leader) about the messenger’s indiscretions—all the secretaries, all the children, and that didn’t sway him at all?” Malcolm’s wife says. (In real life, Malcolm X did accuse Muhammed of having affairs with teenage secretaries, which Muhammed eventually confirmed.)
We see a couple of guys shirtless, and some women appear on camera in bathing suits. We hear some crass talk that includes a line about smelling someone’s underwear.
We see parts of two boxing matches involving Cassius Clay, bouts that obviously involve punching and blood. When Clay’s ringside coaches beg him to just finish a fight, Clay balks—claiming he doesn’t want to get too close to his opponent and get blood on his lucky trunks.
Malcolm’s house is firebombed: He and his family run outside, with Malcolm carrying an automatic weapon.
sSeveral fights take place during the evening spent in Miama. Cooke tells Malcolm that perhaps Malcolm’s father “should’ve beaten you better.” Malcolm decries that black people are “dying” and that people like Sam aren’t doing enough to stop it.
More than 25 f-words (several with the word “mother” prefacing them) and at least 20 s-words. We hear a number of other profanities, too, including “a–,” “d–n,” “h—,” “p-ss” and, predictably, the n-word.
Islam forbids alcohol, and Malcolm doesn’t drink. He assumes that Cassius Clay—now being Muslim—doesn’t drink either. But Clay and Sam go out and buy some booze at a local liquor store, and Cooke quips to Malcolm that he clearly hasn’t smelled Clay’s breath in the last hour.
Cooke smuggles a flask of liquor into Malcolm’s hotel room in his guitar case. He and others drink from it. He also smokes quite a bit. Other people drink and smoke at nightclubs (one of which features a scantily dressed cigarette girl offering the cigs to guests).
We see racial tension and bigotry here. For instance, Jim has a revealing discussion with a rich and superficially warm Georgian (whose family and Jim’s family goes back a long way—perhaps to the Civil War); the man praises Jim for both his football prowess and his character. But when Jim offers to help the man move a cabinet, the man tells him, “You know we don’t allow n—ers in the house.” Sam Cooke bombs at a swanky nightclub (as his disinterested audience says they liked a song so much better when Debbie Reynolds sang it).
Malcolm X believes he’s being followed by the FBI, but perhaps with some reason. Malcolm X was never known for his inclusionary, conciliatory language, and several people note how strident his message often is. He calls out Cooke for singing to the “children of bigots,” and Sam accuses Malcolm of celebrating when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. (Malcolm says he was misquoted; he just said in the aftermath that the “chickens come home to roost.” The movie omits that Malcolm X added, “Chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad.”)
Jim Brown also notes that racism exists within the black community, too—that darker-skinned and lighter-skinned blacks tend to congregate together. And he wonders aloud whether the light-skinned Malcolm is, through his militant language, trying to emphasize how black he is to his brethren.
Cooke takes issue with the Nation of Islam’s leadership for its demonization of white people while ignoring problematic elements within the black community. Clay acknowledges that he’s a performer—and a widely hated one at that—but he embraces his role, comparing himself to the preening wrestler Gorgeous George. “Everyone in that arena pays $100 to see George lose.” And that means, win or lose, George always wins.
We hear some racial slurs about both blacks and whites.
The meeting that takes place in One Night in Miami is fictional, of course. This summit never happened, as far as we know, so what these seminal figures in American history would actually have said to each other is pure speculation.
It does make for surprisingly entertaining speculation, though, if sometimes discomforting. And it does ponder not just race and racial tension, but the role that entertainers play in bringing that tension to the surface. The question is just as timely and provocative today as it has ever been. And while the film does try to push the uber-controversial Malcolm X into a more heroic light than some would feel is warranted, the root questions the film deals with are still important ones.
Directed by Regina King (who’s a more familiar figure in front of the camera) and featuring some outstanding performances (Eli Goree’s turn as Cassius Clay was particularly fun), it features loads of bad language and some risqué asides—fully embracing its R rating. It’s not that the story needed the language or the asides. But there they are, in all their lewd, four-letter glory.
One Night in Miami is an angry movie for an angry era. But it’s a thoughtful movie in an era that could use plenty of thought, too. Alas, the film has embraced our era’s crass, flippant attitude toward language as well, unwarranted and, sometimes, a little out of character.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.