I recently saw a movie that depicted Black Heroes, “One Night in Miami.” As is often the case some folks liked the movie and others didn’t. To be clear I thoroughly enjoyed “One Night in Miami” and was proud of sister Regina King on her directorial debut.
Some of the criticism centered on the vulgar language, and sexist references to women, and frankly that’s fair, but is it accurate? Other criticism was in reference to its portrayals of Black men, particularly, the legendary Minister Malcolm X. However, condemnation was also leveled at the depictions of the other characters in the movie as being weak.
At the outset let’s be clear, this movie was a fictitious account of a meeting that never took place. It is based on actual events of the time. The four main characters, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke are real people, of them only Jim Brown is still alive. The night is February 25, 1964 the night Ali defeated Sonny Liston in Miami for the title, thus the name. Each of these men at the time were famous in their own right. However, then Cassius Clay did in fact send for Malcolm X to join him during his training in Miami.
Malcolm X was the famous minister, freedom fighter and voice of the Nation of Islam. At this time, Malcolm X was about to break away from the Nation due in part to revelations about the leader of the Nation, The Honorable Elijah Muhammad. In addition, he was experiencing a spiritual growth in the religion of Islam. Muhammad Ali had just become the youngest person to win the heavyweight crown in the ring. Jim Brown was and is regarded as the greatest football running back of all time. Sam Cooke was a famous R&B, and gospel singer. Cooke would be mysteriously killed on December 11 of the same year.
Part of the problem I see are the age differences between the story tellers and the critics. I happen to be a fan of jazz music, Coltrane, Sarah, Dizzy and Miles to name a few. I also love the works of Motown and Stax. So rap is mostly noise to me, although my daughters love it. My view changed somewhat when the great Quincy Jones released “Back on the Block.” Who but Q could incorporate Big Daddy Kane and Dizzy Gillespie? Ice T and Miles Davis, Kool Moe Dee and Sarah Vaughn? In the words of Bernard Ighner, “Everything Must Change.” I am reminded of a passage in the Bible where Jesus had to educate his disciples on recognizing there are different ways to educate people.
(Mark 9:38) One of his disciples, John told him one day, “Teacher, we saw a man using your name to cast out demons; but we told him not to, for he isn’t one of our group.” (9:39) “Don’t forbid him!” Jesus said. “For no one doing miracles in my name will quickly turn against me.” (9:40) “Anyone who isn’t against us is for us.”
In this passage Jesus recognizes that people come from different walks of life. They may use different languages, or have different ways of expression, but if they support Christ, that’s all that matters. If this movie causes people to learn more about Malcolm X or the other brothers portrayed, that’s a good thing.
Again, the movie was fiction, this meeting never happened. However, I can tell you for sure from my time with Muhammad Ali, he didn’t spend the night of his championship with 3 guys. The movie was an attempt to show these men in another light, not their public persona. I have so much respect for the work of director, Regina King in telling the story.
Over the years, I’ve had unique opportunities to have met and worked with many of my heroes. I met Muhammad Ali and have been to his home when he lived in Los Angeles. I have met Jim Brown and been to his home. Both of them were featured in the movie and I had the opportunity to judge their portrayals in the movie against my own experiences with them. Frankly, I found the movie quite realistic.
I appreciated seeing another side of Malcolm X, he loved his family. His daughter called him daddy and they had a loving relationship. He clearly loved his wife and they had some of the same challenges all Black families endure, compounded by all the other things going on in their lives.
I’m sure Malcolm had to feel pressure when he decided to break away from the Nation of Islam? But as his conversation with his wife pointed out, their house was owned by the Nation of Islam, they were paying his salary. How would they survive? Moreover, she was pregnant with twins, and they had four young daughters. He was also creating a new organization, battling Cointelpro and the FBI, all this from a brother who was 39-years-old!
Just this year we have learned that NYPD Officer Raymond Wood was part of a government conspiracy to assassinate Malcolm. We now have concerns that the guys convicted of the assassination may not have actually done it, and in any event they clearly acted with government complicity.
There was concern over the use of language by the cast. After being in the presence of so many famous folks, I can tell you that in private people use language they wouldn’t use in public. I remember when Rev. Jesse Jackson was caught off mike talking about then candidate Bill Clinton regarding his Sista Soldier comments.
Many famous folks have a “fiery Persona” in public and may in private be the exact opposite. This movie was supposed to depict the four characters in a private setting. Malcolm was 39, Sam Cooke was 33, Jim Brown was 28 and Muhammad Ali was 22. If four brothers in that age bracket got together in private, you probably wouldn’t want to hear that conversation in church.
I appreciated seeing a Malcolm X who loved his family. While away from home he took time to talk to his daughter and she was excited to talk to her “daddy.” This man had six daughters, two of whom were born after his assassination. We have to be careful that we don’t castigate men for being fathers and sharing their emotions. In the company of people he respected and who clearly loved him, he might cry given all that we now know was going on in his life. Real men can cry! I loved that when Percy Sutton and Ossie Davis talked about Malcolm X they also talked about his spirituality and his love of family, at the January 29, 1999, First Day of Issue Ceremony for his postage stamp at the Apollo Theater.
There was another bit of confusion in some of the criticism of “One Night in Miami.” The inspiration for Ali’s taunting opponents before a fight? According to a 1961 interview with the Associated Press, Ali credited White wrestler Gorgeous George with his antics before a fight. Ali did note the similarities between himself and the first Black Heavyweight Champ, Jack Johnson. Johnson was reviled for his dating White women, and knocking out white men. A law was passed, the “Mann Act” which made it illegal to travel across a state line for “immoral purposes” with a White woman, was specifically aimed at Johnson. He would be convicted and sentenced to federal prison for violating the law, causing him to forfeit his title.
Muhammad Ali on the other hand was convicted of draft evasion and striped of his title. We know his crime was being a Black Muslim, and opposing the Vietnam War. At a low point for Ali, Jim Brown organized a high-level group of professional athletes to support him. Ali appealed and never went to prison, the conviction was later overturned. They both regained their titles!
Another issue raised was whether Malcolm asked Sam Cooke to sing “Blowin in the Wind” by Bob Dylan or songs like it. We will never know the answer to that because the meeting never took place. The melody for the song was as stated taken from the Canadian Black Spiritual, “No Mo’ Auction Block For Me,” which Dylan readily acknowledges. However, we do know that Sam Cooke praised the song and recorded an up tempo version on his album, “Sam Cooke at the Copa.” Upon hearing the song Cooke said, “I wish it had been written by a colored man.” Incidentally, Cooke only performed “A Change is Gonna Come” one time live on the Johnny Carson show, as shown in the movie.
Please see “One Night in Miami” and judge it for yourself. There is a lot of history in the dialogue. There is a new book about Malcolm X. “The Dead are Arising the Life of Malcolm X.” Jim Brown also has a book “Out of Bounds.” Take the time to educate yourself about our history.