One Night in Miami

Sam, Cassius, Malcom and Jim

 

What did Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Malcolm X all talk about when they met to celebrate on the night of Ali’s victory over Sonny Liston in January 1964? It’s a fascinating  question that One Night in Miami asks.

The answer, in reality, is nothing, since the meeting never took place. But Kemp Powers’s  play imagined that it did, and it didn’t do the box office any harm. Now Regina King’s silky and understated direction brings it to a wider audience.

Ali wasn’t called Ali back then. He was still using his birth name, Cassius Clay, a fact that boomers will already know since Ali is part of their programming. For younger audiences, we’re introduced to the four key figures in swift vignettes that catch each of them at a low ebb. Clay is being knocked down by British boxer Henry Cooper, Brown is being racially disrespected, Malcolm X is struggling with his membership of the Nation of Islam and Cooke is playing the Copacabana nightclub, to the indifference and hostility of its white audience.

King does not hang around here but even so manages to give us a sense of who the boxer, NFL legend, political activist and singer are, if we didn’t already know. A familiar TV face acting in series such as Watchmen, and Southland, King has been steadily building a parallel career as a director over the last ten years.

One Night in Miami marks her coming of age in the field. As with many actors who take up directing, she works well with her on-screen talent – Eli Goree as the loud and proud Cassius Clay, Kingsley Ben-Adir as forensic and slightly stick-up-ass Malcolm X, Aldis Hodge as dignified but wounded Jim Brown and Leslie Odom Jr as smart and sweet-voiced Sam Cooke.

At Malcolm X’s behest the three other guests meet for what they imagine is going to be a post-fight pussy party. But they’re shocked to discover that there’s no booze – Malcolm is a Muslim of a strict and particular sort – and only vanilla ice cream as refreshment.

You might expect Clay to hog the film. But though Eli Goree’s Clay is a brilliant thing to watch – the bragging, the cheekiness, the smarts, the performative nous – the weight of the drama is with Malcolm X and Sam Cooke.

 

Kingsley Ben-Adir
Making the news: Malcolm X

 

What Powers’s play wants to hash out is the same stuff as the film The Butler went over – gradualism versus revolution as a way of improving the lot of “the negro” in America. Cooke, not just a pop star but the owner of his own master tapes and a canny businessman with his own label, is the gradualist; Malcolm X, sharp as a laser and with a mouth that could level mountains, is all for revolution and in this struggle you’re either with him or against him. As the night wears on, Malcolm wheedles away at Sam, trying to find the killer argument that will convince him, while Clay and Brown act as palate cleansers between bouts.

Though the intros are handled with economy, things slow down after that and One Night in Miami only really start to cook at about an hour in, after all the intros and smalltalk have been got out of the way and when the argument between Malcolm and Sam gets more personal and heated.

Nit-pickers, pedants like me, will flinch at the use of anachronistic language – no one in 1964 used “reach out” meaning to make contact, similarly the “black community” and “you do the math” were still a good way in the future.

But what great performances, both as individuals and as an ensemble, with the bonus of Leslie Odom’s Jr’s remarkable mimicry of Sam Cooke’s sweet singing voice, and that is a hard voice to mimic.

It never looks like it isn’t a stage play, and Regina King works with that, using the sense of place, of atmosphere and tension to craft an immersive experience. Not quite as if you were in the room with this awesome foursome, but close.

 

 

 

 

One Night in Miami – Watch it/buy at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Clemency

Alfre Woodard

 

We’ve all seen prison dramas – the tough lives of inmates in a heartless system patrolled by brutes, policed by sadists and presided over by a martinet. Clemency isn’t that sort of film. Nor is it film-as-entertainment, be warned, but a grim and sobering look at US prison life from an unusual angle, the warden’s.

Opening up with a pre-credits scene that follows an execution on death row, which ends up being a botched, messy and gruelling one, for the man who’s being killed, the people watching and the warden supervising the whole thing, the film proper then concerns itself with the preparations for the execution of another man, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) again supervised by the same warden, who’s seen too much of this sort of thing.

Bernardine Williams is a woman just doing her job, running a well ordered and humane prison efficiently and with as much kindness as she can show without compromising herself, which is to say not very much. Other representatives of “the establishment” include the condemned man’s sad-eyed lawyer (Richard Schiff), who’s decided that this will be his last execution, the similarly strung-out chaplain (Michael O’Neill), the warden’s careworn but attentive deputy (Richard Gunn) and a seen-too-much officer (LaMonica Garrett) whose exposure to state-sanctioned execution also takes its toll.

These people are not beasts, they’re decent human beings doing a tough job. Nor have they developed tough carapaces to protect them from what they’ve seeen. Rather, the exposure to automated death has made them fragile, liable to snap at any moment. They’re the walking wounded. It’s far from the usual take.

Alfre Woodard, a boss of the ambiguous gesture – is she waving or drowning? – is the star of this unusually angled drama conducted in the quietest of tones and often in semi-darkness. The bar where the warden drinks-to-forget after work is a pit of gloom. The lights are never on at home, where her husband (Wendell Pierce) questions their continuing life together. There is not one single glint of sunshine in the 112 minutes of running time. Nor any laughs. If there is any of the gallows humour you might expect in people doing this sort of work, it’s not on this screen.

 

Aldis Hodge as Anthony Woods
Aldis Hodge as Death Row inmate Anthony Woods

 

A slo-mo tale of the death of the warden’s soul is what we’re watching, but also the death of the body of an inmate. The film isn’t initially about death row inmate Anthony Woods, though as it progresses he edges more into view, and Aldis Hodge becomes more impressive the more he’s asked to do. Even so, writer/director Chinonye Chukwu holds off going too far into questions of Woods’s guilt or innocence. That’s not what Clemency is about.

An exercise in mood control packed with actors who know that holding back can be dramatic in its own way, as in the little scene where Bernardine talks Anthony through “the procedure” – how he’ll be walked to the execution chamber, strapped to a gurney and will then be injected with three separate drugs. She is matter of fact, stone-faced. He says nothing but his head vibrates slowly as if in shock. It’s a carefully and brilliantly under-written scene that’s also played as such.

Outside, meanwhile, protestors chant against the death sentence, overt displays of emotion coming only from people who are essentially impotent.

It’s no Shawshank Redemption, Escape from Alcatraz, or Papillon. There are no jokes about dropping the soap in the shower, no escape plans, no light relief. It is grim and this relentlessness of mood is what makes it so compelling. Catharsis is what films like this are supposed to deliver. I must have missed that bit.

 

 

 

Clemency – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021