Film & TV

One Night in Miami Erases the True History of 1960s Black Icons

From left: Leslie Odom Jr. (as Sam Cooke), Eli Goree (Cassius Clay), Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X), and Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown) in One Night in Miami. (Amazon Studios)
Craving heroes, the filmmakers contrive a celebrities-of-color fantasy that’s woke — and dull.

Professor Francis Fukuyama won fame for pronouncing “The End of History” back in the Nineties, but actress-turned-director Regina King is reaping kudos for One Night in Miami, which celebrates the end of history by showing that it’s dead and unknown.

King directs a script by Kemp Powers (co-writer of Pixar’s Soul) that fantasizes a summit meeting on February 26, 1964, where activist Malcolm X, boxer Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali), football player and film actor Jim Brown, and singer Sam Cooke gathered together in a Miami hotel.

Although Clay is the most famous of the foursome, Malcolm gets top billing, by which King and Kemp assert that Malcolm is the most important, political, inspiring black figure for this era. That belief contradicts the arrival of Obama and the now fetishized notion of “systemic racism.” In leftist Hollywood’s typically demagogic fashion, King and Kemp proffer the post-Obama idea that the past was equal to or worse than the present. King and Kemp seem unaware it’s the present that may be backwards.

Based on a stage play by Kemp, One Night in Miami uses an anachronistic conceit that is exploitative, not insightful like that in Nic Roeg’s Insignificance (1985), which convened 20th-century icons Marilyn Monroe, Joe McCarthy, Joe DiMaggio, and Albert Einstein as a cultural caprice. King and Kemp’s lackluster, humorless rip-off arrogantly suggests that the present is smarter than the past.

Yet with racism as their focus, they never descend from celebrity Olympus to address Fukuyama’s ideas on economics — or Thomas Sowell’s fundamental sociological question about “why the large-scale disintegration of the black family should have begun a hundred years after slavery,” during the Civil Rights Sixties.

These issues are buried under King and Kemp’s fantasy convocation that pretends to reveal the roots of black American dissatisfaction. None of the foursome addresses economics directly, but each man represents envied success. The discontent felt by these icons of civil-rights advancement leads to superficially political obsessions: How to be black, how to push society forward, how to use their celebrity. One Night in Miami’s end of history is epitomized by the disconnection these characters show from their chosen professions — the history of politics, boxing, sports, music, acting.

Why didn’t King and Kemp come up with a film about Oprah, Obama, James Baldwin, and Michael Jackson and their race-sex obsessions? How about Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor? It wouldn’t have been any less realistic than One Night in Miami. Instead, this film is nothing more than a modish, superficial contrivance fitting celebrities of color into a Millennial wet dream.

The movie takes a sarcastic approach to America’s past, making Millennial activists feel superior while also cuing them to hate the history they know little about. King and Kemp ignore Cooke’s gospel background and that Malcolm’s association with black Muslims is part of the same vague, anti-Christian cult as Tina Turner’s Buddhism in other movies. There’s no sense of the spiritual and theological foundations of black American survival. Instead, One Night in Miami establishes a cult of celebrity activism, with Malcolm as its deity. But his self-righteousness is a buzzkill, as when he lectures his fellow celebs for not being woke enough. (Preferring Bob Dylan’s protest songs to Cooke’s love songs disrespects the fact that many black folks lived satisfied lives without Dylan’s music.) And Malcolm’s rant to Clay merely states King and Kemp’s politics:

“There is no more room for anyone not you, not me, not Jimmy, not Sam, for no one to be standing on the fence anymore. Our people are dying in the streets every day. Black people are dying every day!” The latter is the film’s ad slogan, its money shot.

Obamaesque preachiness makes One Night in Miami uncommercial and unentertaining. By limiting its icons to political pawns, the movie misremembers the complex inspiration and fulfillment these men represented in their time. That none of the actors (Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm, Eli Goree’s Clay, Aldis Hodge’s Brown, Leslie Odom Jr.’s Cooke) convey the temperament — the charisma — of the actual men is only half the problem. Historical alienation is the other half.

The lesson to take: There’s a current longing for heroes and role models. The filmmakers’ need for impersonations proves that Millennial America doesn’t really know these men or their struggles. When Odom’s fatuous Cooke sings “A Change Is Gonna Come,” it’s the same over-political narrowing as in the recent Billie Holiday film. The song is made into just another “Strange Fruit” and just as overdone. It’s “Old Man River” for BLM. One Night in Miami is wrong is so many ways — historically, economically, racially, culturally — viewers will be challenged to resent only one.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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