On February 25, 1964, Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston in Miami to become the world heavyweight boxing champion. In the audience were his friends: Malcolm X, a prominent leader of the Nation of Islam; Sam Cooke, the popular singer, songwriter, and music producer famous for his gospel, soul, and pop hits; and Jim Brown, one of the greatest pro football players of all time, who was on the verge of becoming a movie star as well. After the fight, the four African American men went to Malcolm’s room in a motel for Black people only, protected by Nation of Islam guards, to celebrate Clay’s victory. The next day, Clay announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam and was changing his name to Muhammad Ali. A few months later, Cooke released his civil rights anthem, A Change is Gonna Come, the first political song of his career shortly.
The movie, One Night in Miami, just released on Amazon Prime and based on the stage play of the same name, takes the few facts we know about that night and imagines what happened among the four men in that motel room. Each of them was going through an important transition in his life. Malcolm X was considering leaving the Nation of Islam to form a new organization. Brown was starting his transition from football star to movie star. Clay was joining the Nation of Islam. And Cooke probably didn’t quite know it yet, but he was about to use his music fame to make a statement about racism and the struggle against it in the United States. This was, after all, 1964 in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement.
The movie quickly shows tension among the four friends. For example, Brown and Cooke want to drink as part of their celebration. But members of the Nation of Islam don’t drink. Questions come up about the options that Brown, Clay, and Cooke have due to their fame that other Black people don’t have. Above all, the movie addresses the question of whether Black celebrities have a responsibility to actively support the struggle against racism. Perhaps the greatest conflict erupts when Malcolm points out to Cooke that a “white kid” from Minnesota (Bob Dylan) could become a star by marketing his protest song, Blowin’ in the Wind, while Cooke, an established Black star, hadn’t used his fame to make records like that.
One Night in Miami, is a work of fiction based on facts. It may have happened pretty much as depicted, or differently, but either way, it raises powerful questions about individuals and social movements and is extremely relevant today.