There is plenty of angry talk in Regina King’s One Night in Miami – available on Amazon Prime and adapted from Kemp Powers’s play – but the cruellest remark is very discreet and goes unheard by the victim. Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr) is singing at the Copacabana in New York, fulfilling a lifelong ambition. Rather than opening with one of his hits, he chooses a song he thinks appropriate to the venue. The song is called ‘Tammy’. The audience, exclusively white, old and rich, is not charmed. A woman leans towards her partner and says: ‘I preferred it when Debbie Reynolds sang it.’
The cruelty here has nothing to do with the quality of Cooke’s singing. It lies in Cooke’s failure to understand that an audience like this could exist in New York, and in his acceptance of the disastrous performance as a sort of Station of the Cross. The point is emphasised later in the film when Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) describes a concert Cooke once gave in Boston. The sound system didn’t work, but Cooke persuaded the largely black audience to create a rhythmic accompaniment of stamping and clapping, and to sing along with ‘Chain Gang’. It’s not clear that his refusal to admit defeat then could have had any equivalent at the Copacabana, and this is what Malcolm is pointing out.
The Copacabana scene is one of four sequences that have the feel of allegorical fables, each showing a moment of change in a man’s life and preparing the ground for the night of the film’s title, when four paths will cross and when key questions come into focus. For Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), soon to become Muhammad Ali, the moment is his fight with Henry Cooper at Wembley in 1963, which he is easily winning until he drops his guard and gets knocked down. Fortunately, the round ends before he can be counted out, and two rounds later he is declared the winner. Malcolm is shown talking with his wife Betty (Joaquina Kalukango) about his decision to leave the Nation of Islam. The quietest and most pastoral of the four sequences, if also the most haunting, involves the football player and actor Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) visiting an elderly white fan from his home town in Georgia. The old man is very genial, delighted to chat with the star on his porch, and still genial when he goes to move a chest inside and refuses Brown’s help, because of course he can’t have a black person inside the house. He expects Brown to understand this as perfectly obvious.
The occasion for the four men’s meeting is Clay’s fight with Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight title on 25 February 1964. (Within a year of the period depicted in the film, two of the men will have been murdered: Cooke in December 1964 and Malcolm in February 1965.) Against the odds, but justifying his own crazy hype, Clay wins, and the men gather in Malcolm’s room at the Hampton House Motel in Miami, which becomes the backdrop for the rest of the movie (in the play, this is where the action starts). When Cooke, Clay and Brown arrive after the fight, they’re expecting a party of some kind. What they find are two bodyguards at the door and only Malcolm within. He is serving ice cream as the sole refreshment, and he wants to talk. Clay is excited (he’s only 22), Malcolm’s on edge because he thinks he’s being tracked by some of his enemies, and because he doesn’t know how he will support his family after he leaves the Nation. Cooke wants to have fun, and Brown is waiting to see what happens. When tempers begin to fray, it’s Brown who says: ‘This party’s off to a hopping start.’
The movie invites us to think a little about film and photography, and more generally about images and their relation to what we think is real. Brown tells Clay about his developing career in film; when he explains that he is playing a character who dies halfway through the story, Clay laughs and says ‘the sacrificial negro’. Malcolm worries about his new camera – a Rolleiflex – and the others tease him by tossing it between them as if it was a football. They’re too deft to drop it, but his worry is palpable, and the whole episode introduces an element of fragility into the notion of record.
And then the movie settles down to its main argument, a face-off between Malcolm and Cooke or, rather, an onslaught by Malcolm, who derides Cooke as a mere entertainer doing nothing for his people and singing to the wrong audiences. ‘You’re a monkey dancing for an organ grinder to them,’ Malcolm says. Cooke responds by saying that Elijah Muhammed, the leader of the Nation of Islam, ‘lives like a Pharaoh’ when there is poverty all around him. Then Cooke leaves the motel for a while. When he returns he is mollified by Malcolm telling the story about the concert in Boston, and the characters are sure that the reason Malcolm got so angry with Cooke is because he admires him so much.
In fact, the argument becomes a little awkward here, and it is only a certain delicacy in King’s direction, an unwillingness to let any of the characters be entirely right or wrong, that saves it from simplification. In his suitcase, presumably placed there in anticipation of his conversation with Cooke, Malcolm has a Bob Dylan album, and plays the track ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. This is the kind of song he thinks Cooke should have written. Malcolm glosses Dylan’s opening lines (‘How many roads must a man walk down/Before you call him a man?’) in a way that is pat and tendentious but still persuasive: ‘How much do the oppressed have to do before they can be treated as human beings?’ Cooke is angry, but later admits that his anger has to do with his not having written such a song. By the end of the film, he has. It’s called ‘A Change is Gonna Come’. There’s an echo here of Langston Hughes’s ‘dream deferred’, and it’s a sobering thought that we have to take Cooke’s promise as a brave wish rather than a fulfilled prophecy, just as we see Hughes’s deferment as a way of not conceding to cancellation. The film underlines the clash between hope and reality by cross-cutting, at the end, between Cooke singing the song and Malcolm escaping with his family from a burning house.
But what really linger in the mind are the film’s portrayals of diffuse, apparently casual forms of prejudice, like the boredom of Cooke’s audience at the Copacabana, or the jovial, unacknowledged contempt of Brown’s host in Georgia. Or the horrible piety of all those people who, in Brown’s words, ‘pat themselves on the back for not being cruel to us’. Maybe the problem is not whether we treat people as human beings – we can do that and still be awful – but whether we have even begun to take the measure of our many condescensions.