This film is a fictionalized account of the actual events which took place the night of February 25, 1964. That night, Muhammad Ali, when he was known as Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Malcolm X, spent time that evening together after Ali had won the heavyweight boxing title by defeating Sonny Liston earlier. Malcolm had served as Ali’s spiritual advisor and mentor in preparation for that fight. Ali had paid for what would turn out to be Malcolm’s only family vacation with sister Betty Shabazz and the children when Ali paid for all of them to visit Miami while he was training for the Liston fight. Dr. Shabazz and the children stayed a while in Miami with Malcolm before returning to New York while Malcolm stayed behind to continue to guide the then Cassius Clay. Malcolm of course was attempting to contribute towards recruiting Ali into the Nation of Islam. We know of course that by the time of the fight, Malcolm was serving a 90 day punishment from Elijah Muhammad due to Malcolm’s comments about John F. Kennedy’s death being a case of the “chickens coming home to roost.” In other words, we know that at that time, despite working to recruit Muhammad Ali, Malcolm had one fight inside and one foot outside of the Nation of Islam. It was less than two weeks after that night in Miami that Malcolm officially broke with the Nation of Islam and most people know the history of acrimony between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad after that. Muhammad Ali sided with Elijah Muhammad in the dispute and ridiculed Malcolm up to and after his assassination on February 21, 1965. By some accounts, Malcolm was recruiting Muhammad Ali as a strategy to hold leverage over Elijah Muhammad since the conversion of Clay to Muhammad Ali into the Nation would be a large chip for Muhammad’s organization. We tend to believe that the situation was much more complex than that. There is no evidence to suggest that Malcolm’s recruitment work with Muhammad Ali was anything less than sincere. In other words, there are no accounts of Malcolm trying to convince Ali against staying within the Nation of Islam after he was no longer a member. Still, that night in February of 1964, what we do know is Malcolm was there as Ali’s mentor and advisor. Ali, a former Olympic Gold Medal winner four years previously, was given absolutely no chance to best Liston. Most accounts dismissed Ali as a clown due to his theatrical performance art leading up to the fight, making fun of Liston, making bombastic predictions, and doing so much to emulate the flamboyant antics he learned from wrestler Gorgeous George. Even Elijah Muhammad had advised Malcolm earlier to avoid being connected to Ali because of the broad perception that Liston would end Ali’s career the night they fought.
Sam Cooke was as popular a singer as there existed in soul music during this time. He had already produced multiple signature hits like “Chain Gang” and “You Send Me.” He had also demonstrated a strong business acumen, purchasing his own record label at a time when doing was extremely rare for any entertainer, especially an African one. Jim Brown was the poster child as the greatest running back in professional football. Before there was Marshawn Lynch, Emmet Smith, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, and O.J. Simpson, the model for the running back position was Jim Brown. And, Brown’s outspoken attacks against racist segregation and the oppression of Africans within the U.S. made him larger than football in many ways.
What we know for sure is those four African men shared an actual friendship and mutual respect together. What we don’t know is what actually happened in that hotel room that night after Ali became the boxing champion of the world. Regina King’s movie attempts to provide us a glimpse into that night when four iconic figures in African sports, entertainment, and movement history shared a historic night together.
The acting was good and the movie, despite the absence of any action beyond the initial fight scenes, was very engaging. For me the major appeal of the movie is its effort in portraying four very different African men, each with their own notoriety, who held a relationship with one another that was not burdened with jealousy and pettiness, but mutual respect.
The challenges I observed with the movie were significant. Unlike so many people who naively rely on capitalist Hollywood to educate them about our history, no matter the quality of the presentation, I can never forget that the objective of the movie industry is always to entertain and make money. For them, it’s the story, not the truth, that they are selling. Movies are not made to raise the political consciousness of the masses. Unfortunately, this movie does little to escape that mold. The characterization of that night is the characters portraying Ali, Brown, and Cooke, wanting nothing more than to go out, find women, and party. Meanwhile, the Malcolm X character takes charge of the night and pushes all of them to subscribe to a Muslim inspired night where they would sit around, alcohol and drug free, and reflect on their place in this world where African people are fighting for basic dignity. No women. No partying. Just reflection. For me, I did truly resonate with this part of the movie because I guess that’s one of the things I learned from Malcolm. The idea his character promotes for that night would sound pretty exciting to me.
The course the movie takes is for conflict between Malcolm and Sam Cooke to develop based on Malcolm’s ridiculing Cooke for not producing more movement promoting music. In essence, the entire movie takes on this theme of Malcolm forcing his values onto them despite the age old contradiction where his values are never actually explained. When this happens, the unconscious result is movement people seeming to appear dogmatic and inhumane to the average observer. This part of the movie was unappealing because it’s the same tactic that is often used to display radical and revolutionary Africans. Whether its Killmonger in “Black Panther” being unhinged and ruthless or Malcolm’s character in “A Night in Miami” being inflexible, bullish, and insensitive, it’s the same old narrative that these crazy militants can’t just relax and be regular human beings. Whether intentional or not, this is an extremely damaging narrative because most of our people don’t study our actual history, so these portrayals reinforce the belief that revolutionaries are really not people who know how to have fun, how to unwind, how to be human. This of course, unconsciously drives people away from the desire to interact with and emulate people like this. Who wants to become a robot?
Then, there was the always present, very subtle jab at those of us who decide to struggle uncompromisingly for justice. That jab is that we are always the ones who end up losing. That happened in the Black Panther movie where Chadwick Boseman (RIP) and even the Central Intelligence Agency guy come out on top while the Michael B. Jordan “revolutionary” character gets what he deserves in the end. We lose, again. Most of the time, these jabs are not even necessary or related to the plot which always leads me to believe their inclusion is never an accident. For example, in “A Night in Miami” during the ending movie credits, meaning after the movie is definitely over, something extremely strange occurs. As many movies do, the credits provide an update on what happened with each of the four men after that night. For Ali it was of course, the continuance of his boxing career before his eventual refusal to accept the immoral draft into the immoral Vietnam war. For Brown it was his surprising and early retirement from professional football. For Malcolm, it was a quote he made two days before the credits indicate he was not assassinated, but “murdered.” The use of that word instead of assassinated was interesting because murder seems to suggest a more sinister result, but that wasn’t the most insulting part of it. The narrative provided for Sam Cooke spoke of his recording of “A Change Gonna Come” after that night which was clearly an anthem for the movement during the 1960s. Then, his continued business accomplishments during that year. What was strange is although you are made aware in clear terms that Malcolm was assassinated less than one year after that historic night, the movie makes no mention of the fact Sam Cooke, like Malcolm, was shot and killed on December 11, 1964, more than two months before Malcolm was assassinated. This is significant because anytime you talk about someone’s life, and then demonstrate that they were killed for how they lived, which is definitely the story for Malcolm X, the unwritten and subtle suggestion for most people who are not well versed in struggling for justice is that if you fight against the oppressor, death awaits you. Ironically, Malcolm was killed by the U.S. government due to his increasing and emerging political radicalization on an international and Pan-African basis. Sam Cooke, all respect due, was killed under circumstances which at best have to be described as confusing and strange. He was shot and killed by an African woman hotel manager who testified that he had kidnapped a young woman and had held her against her will. The young woman also reported the same thing. Whether that’s what happened or not, the point is that it was indeed odd that the movie would not report Cooke’s demise the same way they reported Malcolm’s. In our humble opinion, it doesn’t happen that way because whatever the reason for Cooke’s death, it definitely wasn’t related to any fighting he was doing on behalf of the African masses so that usual dig suggesting that if you struggle, you die, wouldn’t be necessary.
Its that last part which makes yet another movie that falls far short. And, this isn’t shade against Regina King or any of the producers of the movie. The truth is the only reason any of the things are even issues is because despite the fact information exists every where we turn in this information based society, most of us have no interest and desire to study any of it. Hollywood will never educate us about our history. Even if someone like King wanted to, the Hollywood movie industry will never see doing so as a sensible profit approach because we as a community never demand that. So, to them, in order for anything to make money, even something presented about our historical figures, it must be done in an entertainment way as if we are pigs who only know how to wallow in filth to achieve satisfaction. Under these conditions, even if King was the most conscious and conscientious director on earth, it would not be possible to do much more than what was done. This is true because it is the masses of people who guide and direct the artists, not the other way around. Cooke producing “A Change Gonna Come” was the result of his being pushed to do so by not only Malcolm, but the burgeoning movement of our people for forward progress. People demanded more from the artists and they got it whether it was the Supremes, the Isley Brothers, James Brown, whomever. The capitalist system, always alert to ways to confuse us, continues to teach that individuals make history. As long as we continue to believe that and keep waiting for someone else to come along and do what only all of us are capable of doing, the best we will ever get is half stories and misguided confusion that further muddies the waters and keeps us from accepting our true responsibilities to ourselves, our families, our people, and our planet.