'One Night In Miami' Is a Rare Glimpse at the Humanity of Our Heroes

The Amazon Prime original is a colorful dramatization of the night Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown celebrated Muhammad Ali's historic 1964 win in a segregated hotel.
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one night in miami
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This year, instead of circulating the usual black-and-white photos we know by memory on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, there was a call to share colorful images of the Civil Rights activist. In the 1960s, printing in black-and-white was cheaper than printing in color, and although technology is lightyears beyond what it used to be, we rarely see the backbones of that era in anything other than black-and-white. Seeing Dr. King's life captured vividly on camera, and not just in muted monochromes, makes him less stoic. It reminds us that before Martin Luther King Jr. was our icon, he was a husband, father, and friend. This isn't something unique to Dr. King; Many of the narratives surrounding the Civil Rights era's key players have been romanticized as if they weren't people first. 


One Night In Miami, directed by Regina King, builds on the idea that icons were humans with flaws. Miami, based on a play by Kemp Powers, dramatizes what happened when Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown celebrated Muhammad Ali's historic 1964 win in a segregated hotel in Miami. King's directorial debut is an intimate portrayal of four larger-than-life heroes grappling with the realization that no amount of celebrity could transcend being a Black man in America in the 60s. 

Miami's opening scenes capture the frustration of being Black and matriculating through predominantly white spaces. It’s a lifetime of working twice as hard for less recognition. It can be as overt as the Copacabana's all-white audience walking out of Sam Cooke's performance despite the success of his 1957 hit, "You Send Me." But it can also be as subtle as the southern hospitality of Mr. Carlton, a neighbor who invites Jim Brown over for lemonade—only to tell Brown "You know I don't let niggers in my house." When the group decides to watch their friend Cassius Clay, not yet known to the world as Muhammad Ali, at the World Heavyweight Championship, it was supposed to be a night where they could unwind without the fatigue that comes with defending their Blackness daily. In Miami, we learn early that it's not always easy to compartmentalize what was designed to beat you down mentally. 


What should've been a victory party for the foursome after Clay beat Sonny Liston ended up being much more than that: it became a glimpse at the men behind the movement. King's directorial eye zeroes in on the minor details, like a prayer between Malcolm X and Clay before the fight. It isn't often that we see either man depicted this way, Malcolm without his signature frames or Clay, known for over-indulgent confidence, in silence. We even see Malcolm assume the role of the group's photographer, and although his love for photos is not a secret, you rarely think of men of his stature as hobbyists. And while these details are small, they help provide context for the historical moment we're experiencing with them. Clay is expected to announce his conversion to the Nation of Islam, to which he has some reservations, after the fight. It’s the first sign to the viewer that these men, each symbols of strength in pop culture, have their insecurities. Masculinity, specifically Black masculinity, is rarely shown as tenderly as it is in Miami.

One of the beautiful parts of the film is that we see the different permutations of the bonds formed in these friendships. As athletes and the youngest in the group, Brown and Clay have the most in common. When Brown reveals to Clay that he's thinking about leaving the league to be an actor in Rio Conchos, playing a Buffalo soldier who gets killed halfway through the film, Clay can't help but laugh. "I should've known that when you said Black action hero, the next part of that sentence was going to be who gets killed," he says. 


They talk about the concept of being "the sacrificial Negro," a Black person who dies to save others (mainly white protagonists). That statement, paired with Malcolm's paranoia that he's being followed, only underscores how much of their personal lives they were actually sacrificing. "I figure I better get my life story documented while I still can," he says. We have come to know Malcolm X as a fearless leader, but it is chilling to watch him understand the repercussions—like the possibility of assassination—of spreading his message. Miami casts the message as so crucial to Malcolm, that he spends most of the night butting heads with Cooke about how powerful Black men should use their voice. 

The film's biggest fight isn't between Clay and Liston, but between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke, who have vastly different approaches to Black liberation. Malcolm X is largely known for his "By any means necessary" rhetoric. But the film's portrayal of Cooke focused on breaking racial barriers on the music charts and, by affording Black artists ownership over their music with his record label, infiltrating systems from the inside out. Neither method is better; they're just different. According to a recent interview with The New York Times, King emphasized the differences in their viewpoints on purpose.  


"For me, watching Malcolm and Sam was more of a reminder that all of those perspectives have to exist in order to actually make a movement move," she said. 

Cooke, who was dubbed Mr. Soul, had not yet released "A Change Is Gonna Come," a song about the plight of Black America that is as resonant in 2021 as it was when it was released. In the film Malcolm didn't mince his words when sharing his thoughts on Cooke's success: "We are fighting for our lives and what words are we hearing from you Mr. Soul?" he asks, comparing Cooke's saccharine love songs to Bob Dylan's "Blowing in the Wind," which was released a year earlier. "This is a white boy from Minnesota, who has nothing to gain for writing a song that speaks more to the struggle to the movement than anything you have ever penned in your life," Malcolm says. We may never know the exact details of the conversations that went on in that room that night, but The Two Killings of Sam Cooke, a 2019 documentary on Netflix, reveals that when Cooke heard "Blowing in the Wind," he wished it was his.   

But it's Brown, who offers comedic relief for most of the movie, who addresses the elephant in the room. "I just wonder if all this [...] is really about trying to prove something to white people, or is it about trying to prove something to Black people," he says. At that moment, you realize that although Cooke and Malcolm stand on opposite sides, white supremacy has done its job by keeping them divided. 

One Night in Miami is billed as a "fact-based drama," and while most of it is fodder about what could have happened that night, the overwhelming truth is that a meeting between Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke was a union of the most powerful Black men of that time. These were men with targets on their back, and Cooke's friendship with Clay and Malcolm alone was enough to get him surveyed by the FBI. One Night in Miami is also special because it is also likely to be the last time all four friends were together. Cooke was murdered that December, followed by Malcolm X's assassination two months later. 

"We all ended up that night in this Black motel. It became so historical," Brown said in The Two Killings of Sam Cooke. "We shared our thoughts. Standing up was a big thing for all of us because we defied second citizenship and being considered inferior. Being outspoken, the risk was to lose money or to lose popularity with Middle America. But those of us who were there that night cared nothing about that. It was about us standing up as human beings and demanding our rights."

Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.