Regina King makes her directorial debut with this adaptation of Kemp Powers (adapted to screenplay by Powers himself) play that imagines the events of a real night in Miami where Muhammed Ali then Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) met following the victory of Cassius over Sonny Liston in 1964. The men discuss racism, fame and more broadly the movement that Malcolm X is a part of and is hoping to involve the men in. Each have found qualified success in a white dominated America, but is getting by enough?
Each of the men is on the verge of a shift in their lives. Cassius is about to join the nation of Islam, Jim Brown is about move into acting, Malcolm X . However, within a year two of these men will have been murdered. Of course a modern audience will know about the tragedies that will befall these men. The film makes portentous references to death and illness the lurk in the future beyond this auspicious night.
You can attribute the feeling to unhealthy celebrity worship, but there really is something electrifying to seeing these convincing facsimiles of titans of history and sport talk privately. To see Cassius Clay and Malcolm X meet and pray together and bond as two men experiencing their own sides of a system that tolerates them but would rather they remain quiet. The performances are exceptional. Every man avoids caricature and finds the humanity at the heart of these icons. Their chemistry is absorbing and compelling.
But it wouldn’t be so exciting if not for the fantastic dialogue. The men bond, laugh and fight in fascinating ways. Each man feels fully formed and has the feel of authenticity. The dynamic between the four is perfect for exploring the themes of the film. The role of the black performer in a racist society, the prejudice and rectifying personal wellbeing against civic responsibility. Malcolm X as the passionate intellectual, Jim Brown as the calm voice of reason, Cassius as the excitable but sometimes naïve young champion, and Cooke as the realist
The film’s heritage as a play is often clear as a great deal of the action occurs in one location in a story that is driven by dialogue. The opening of the film moves around Miami and does a good job of establishing context. The sprawling, exciting 60s Miami is not just implied through dialogue, it’s vividly just beyond the door that traps the men in this room. King does push the narrative beyond the room, taking us into flashbacks and exploring the spaces around the hotel. But even when within the confines of the hotel room, King finds the cinematic amongst the four figures and four walls.
It’s difficult to adapt a play to the big screen but this is a fabulous staging of a very well-written play. King is an exciting new director who has brought the story to vivid life. This is an excellent showcase of four men at the top of their powers and a fascinating exploration of how different men are affected by being prominent black men in a society that is afraid of them.