One night in Miami and the language of cause

Zeenia Parveen & Khurram Muraad Siddiquie

‘Chickens coming home to the roost’, reverberated the social media when white militia ferociously stormed the US Capitol without much intervention from the State. These words belong to Malcolm X, “the chickens have come home to roost” was his response when he was asked to comment on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. His statement created a commotion and as a result, he was suspended for 90 days from the Nation of Islam. On this historical timeline, One Night in Miami splits open for the viewers.

Four powerhouses indulged in a stimulating conversation, talking, agreeing, disagreeing, tearing each other with their words, accepting their shortcomings in their own ways, crying, laughing, and parting for their own journeys – all connected with the colour of their skin, the oppressive world for their heads, and their shades of resistance in return. One night in Miami is this, a fictional account, unfurling one incredible night which holds private conversation among African American icons Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown.

The film offers the lived experiences of these epoch-making black men who are at the threshold of endearing an important phase in their lives, it discusses their roles in the civil rights movement and cultural upheaval of the 60s in America, simultaneously attempting to reveal deeper humanity of the characters and so of the viewers as well.

The film is an adaptation of a play “one night in Miami” written by Kemp Powers who also wrote the screenplay of the movie. The actress-turned-director Regina did her directorial debut with this movie. In an interview with IMDB, while discussing about the representation and culture on screen, she said, “We have come to a place where, we feel empowered to really speak our minds and not feel apologised for how we feel.” The movie certainly is a declaration of black empowerment and self-determination.

The central characters of the movie are historical and relevant to today more than ever. Malcolm X played by Kingsly Bend-Adir is the kingpin of the discourse in the film. Mohammed Ali, enthusiastically played by Eli Gori, who is still Cassius Clay is about to go into the ring. Jimmy Brown, played by Aldis Hodge is the NFL football star who is planning to join Movies, and Sam Cooke, brilliantly played by Leslie Oldom Jr is making music and money.

These celebrities, friends in real life, gather to celebrate Cassius’s surprise title win against Sonny Liston at the Hampton house in Miami, guarded by the Nation of Islam security. At one point Cassius starts hopping on the bed, one can only imagine what a 22-years-old would not do after winning the world championship. The film tries to touch the mortality of these characters but carefully brings the discussion back to the “cause”. The character’s own conflicts, choices, and potential consequences are served as an opportunity for the viewers to be a part of this historical conversation along with the four men in the room.

The research and homework behind what finally plays on the screens are pretty efficient. The journey of these characters is executed with the much-required and often undermined nuances, which comes across finely by the amazing cast without making it look colossal, trying to impersonate gigantic African American icons.

Before the Cassius’s winning fight, we are shown Malcolm (who is Cassius’s guest in the hotel) praying on the mat next to Cassius, who had not yet gone public with his decision of joining Nation of Islam. In this premise, the movie finely attempts to present the practice of Islam as a politically driven endeavour if not a spiritual one. The writer Kemp Powers, interestingly executes the idea of liberation in the ‘Nation of Islam’ and equates it to a ‘gang’ which has not been shared widely before.

After a bit of small talk, as the conversation begins, the audience is led into Malcolm’s world. Malcolm tells that one of the reasons that they are here is to celebrate Clay’s transition into Muhammad Ali. At this point, we are served with the idea of what the rest of the film is going to be about, the “cause”. Sam and Jimmy are not so sure about Clay’s decision and the discussion follow in all directions, taking a case in point from each of their lives. The ‘conversation’ hangs at certain moments as if it is being dragged, the drops of voices, long pauses, and the awkward silence, all make it a notch closer to reality.

In a scene, Malcolm is shown telephoning his wife from a phone booth and talking to his daughter, an exchange of human emotion, though it is a fiction film and not a historical account, it captures Malcolm X in his vulnerability. He gives his daughter a book as a gift from her shelf. Something he himself described reading as a ‘dormant believe to be mentally alive.’

One of the interesting characters of the film is of Sam Cooke who by all means is in the fold of the cause, yet outside of it. Malcolm X asks Sam that he has the “most effective and beautiful outlets of us all” and he is still not helping for the cause, to which Leslie in his great performance, replies that his business and creativity are very much inspiring to the black folks as much as is Malcolm going on the podium and trying to annoy them. The debate between Malcolm X and Cooke on the subject tries to encapsulate the complexities and sensibilities of human intellect and the material advantage, tapping into the possibilities of resistance and share in power. 

In one of the scenes when Malcolm has gone rogue, Jim Brown tells him, “you don’t have a real job” to understand all this, which gives the audience a moment to wonder if it were for a real job, had Malcolm transformed into Shahbaz el Malik. Though the ending note of his journey fails to mention Malcolm’s post-Haj glow-up in the larger picture of emancipatory Politics and his unofficial position as the leader/ representative of Black America. Same was the lacuna in Muhammad Ali’s transition to the Nation of Islam as a Muslim, which could have been highlighted with the religion’s political weightage but was rather and strictly centred on the struggle in its literal terms.

The dialogues like ”you brothers can move mountains” in Malcolm’s heavy accent gives a hair raising experience for those in the room along with him if not for those in the bedroom watching it on their laptop screens. In the times when governments around the world are oppressing minorities and democracy is a party in sharing and organization of violence, this film hands a perspective for a longer fight to the champions of liberation and comrades of justice. The movie was released on 15th January 2021 and is available for streaming on prime video.

“change is gonna come”

Zeenia Parveen is a postgraduate student of Politics and is a freelance writer.

Khurram Muraad Siddiquie is a graduation student of linguistics from University of Hyderabad.