A thought-provoking, charming piece about four influential men taking different journeys to the same destination
After gracing us with over 35 years of iconic performances, Regina King takes a seat in the director’s chair and proves her talent stretches far beyond her work in front of the camera.
Based on a play by Kemp Powers, (whose other works include Pixar’s ‘Soul’) the film centers around four 60s icons and real-life friends: heavyweight champion, Cassius Clay (Eli Goree); soul/R&B legend, Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.); NFL star, Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and civil rights leader, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir).
On February 25th, 1964, Clay (who later became Muhammad Ali) beat Sonny Liston and assumed his title as heavyweight champion of the world. That much is true. As for what happened that night, well we will never know for sure. But, touching on the details we know to be true, this film adapts Powers’ artistic interpretation of what happened that night in Miami.
Set in the 60s in America, the historical context of the film is well-known. As the real Jim Brown later put it, “fairness and equality didn’t exist.” Segregation and racism were rife and deeply embedded into daily practices and establishments.
Despite all being, as Clay puts it, “young, black, righteous and famous” all four men had contrasting views on how to approach the struggle they equally faced.
So, what should have been a night of achievement, is spent going over how they could do their bit for the struggle. Because of their societal obligation as black, successful men, instead of relaxing and enjoying their success, they felt obliged to use their respective platforms for the good of the black community.
It’s admirable but also eye-opening. For any white male celebrity of the era, a night of achievement would have been just that. But for those facing racial inequality and discrimination on a daily basis, they couldn’t just forget they were black; they had a duty to their community. It touches on themes of intersectionality and specifically, the feeling amongst minorities of not belonging in a space dominated mostly by white people at the time. For ethnic minorities, navigating these spaces is tricky because it often means choosing between personal success and the good of the community as a whole. Despite being in a different time, the messages are still very relevant today.
To make a good film, Hitchcock said you need three things: “the script, the script and the script”. Bar a few short scenes, this film is mostly based in the single setting of the Hampton House motel room. It’s easy to lose interest with single-set movies, but in this case, it works. The modest backdrop truly allows the poignant one-liners to land and proves Hitchcock’s words to be true. Ultimately, a film is only as good as its script. And this script is superb.
That said, even the best script in the world would collapse if it wasn’t upheld by decent acting, so it’s a good thing no one falls short. It’s natural for extra scrutiny to be placed on actors portraying well-known figures, but each man manages to grasp the essence of the people they are playing without compromising anything we know of the icons already. I think the fact we don’t know exactly what happened that night, only the events leading up to it and thereafter, means the accuracies become unimportant. Instead, you are able to focus purely on the souls behind the dialogue.
In addition to this, there’s something compelling about the thought of such famous people being friends. As Malcolm X’s bodyguards guard the door for most of the night, inside the room, their fame is somewhat irrelevant. It gives off the same energy as I imagine the ladies’ toilet would at the Oscars.
The story explores economic vs political freedom as the answer to racial inequality – a choice that black people all over the world are still having to make to this day. This is where Malcolm and Cooke can be seen to butt heads when Malcolm accuses Cooke of not using his platform to benefit the struggle against racism and injustice. He accuses him of “pandering” to white people who just want him for his voice. What follows is a heated and animated debate about their place in the struggle.
There’s laughter, there’s music, there’s raw emotion… but above all, there are some important conversations and realities that anyone would do well to witness. The words are too powerful not to hear.
Worth the hype? Definitely.