‘One Night in Miami’ Review: After the Big Fight, a War of Words
Malcolm tries to push Cooke in a different direction, arguing that the job of successful black artists is not to gain approval from whites, but to use their fame and talent to advance the cause of their own people. The dramatic nerve center of the film, which Kemp Powers adapted from his own play, is the dispute between Malcolm and Cooke, who have known each other for a long time and whose intimacy is marked by rivalry and resentment. It’s a complex and subtle debate that Clay and Brown implies and that reverberates in the story and later actions of all four.
Cooke, who drives a red sports car, smokes cigarettes, and carries a bottle in his jacket, stands in obvious spirited contrast with Malcolm, who is both the straight arrow and the nerd of the group, offering them vanilla ice cream and showing off his new Rolleiflex camera. One of the joys of One Night in Miami, as we can imagine, is seeing the private selves of public figures and examining aspects of their personalities that some of their familiar personalities have constructed to be obscure.
I think this is also an important point in Powers’ script: history is not made by icons, but by people. Fame, which offers opportunity and temptation to each of them, comes with a cost. The fine print of racism is always part of the contract. What Cooke, Brown and Clay share is a desire for freedom – a determination to find independence from the companies and institutions that control them and seek to capitalize on their talents.
Malcolm, faced with various pressures, challenges them to combine their own freedom with something greater, a commandment that each of the others recognizes in their own way. Malcolm’s style can be didactic, but One Night in Miami is anything but. Instead of a group biop or a pre-made costume drama, it is an intellectual thriller that crackles with energy and ideas. Who doesn’t want to be in this room? And there we are.
What we see may not be exactly what happened. I don’t know if Malcolm X really traveled with a copy of “The Freewheelin ‘Bob Dylan” so he could say something about protest music by dropping the needle on “Blowin’ in the Wind”. There are aspects of the characters’ lives that are noted in passing but not really explored – Cooke’s and Brown’s treatment of women in particular. Malcolm’s wife Betty Shabazz (Joaquina Kalukango) can be seen in a few scenes, as does Barbara Cooke (Nicolette Robinson), but they do not play a role in a story that deals with masculinity. Even so, there is enough authenticity and coherence in the writing and performances to make the film a believable representation of its moment, and King’s directing makes it more than that.