Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
On Feb. 25, 1964, Muhammad Ali fought Sonny Liston in a boxing match for the World Heavyweight Championship in Miami Beach, Florida. On June 7, 2013, Kemp Powers premiered a play in Los Angeles about that evening. Powers had learned in a book about Ali by Mark Marqusee that on that evening, the boxer chose to spend the aftermath of the fight having a quiet party in a humble hotel room with three friends. Those friends included Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke, three of the most famous African-Americans alive in that time period. Powers imagines what the four of them discussed while in that hotel room. In her feature directorial debut, Regina King (Watchmen and Seven Seconds) adapts Powers’ play in what is one of the best films of 2020.
Eli Goree (Pearson and Riverdale) plays Cassius Clay, the beautiful and outspoken boxer who would become Muhammad Ali, so-called “The Greatest.” Cassius converted to Islam and Muhammad Ali is his Muslim name. Marqusee’s book is in part about that conversion and Cassius’ move from mere pop culture icon to civil rights activist and Powers’ play sees this day in 1964 as a turning point, not only for Cassius but for all the other men in that room as well. Powers brilliantly dramatizes it and Goree brilliantly inhabits Cassius Clay. Many might compare Goree’s performance to Will Smith’s Oscar-nominated role in Ali (2001), but Goree makes it his own, a confident and cocky man whose narcissism never feels like a negative but rightful adoration of an amazing athlete.
Kingsley Ben-Adir (The Comey Rule and Peaky Blinders) stars as Malcolm X, a civil rights leader and also the most well-known American Muslim in the country. He was as prominent as Martin Luther King, Jr., but, arguably more controversial. Malcolm was against the racism that African-Americans faced, but Malcolm was quoted as calling white Americans “the devil.” He’s seemingly the strongest in his opposition to white supremacy and certainly the most paranoid. He’s also the most political where taking time to have fun doesn’t come without an agenda and an attempt to advance his cause. Many might compare Ben-Adir’s performance to Denzel Washington’s Oscar-nominated role in Malcolm X (1992), but again, Ben-Adir makes it his own, as a man in admiration but also in desperation, strong and commanding but also vulnerable and scared. I would absolutely love to see him follow in Washington’s footsteps and make Malcolm X the first Black character to be recognized multiple times at the Oscars.
Aldis Hodge (The Invisible Man and Straight Outta Compton) plays Jim Brown, one of the most celebrated, African-American, NFL players prior to the Civil Right Movement. He was a fullback who was a member of the Cleveland Browns. However, he’s from St. Simons Island, Georgia. He’s from the South and has experienced the racism of it firsthand. Yet, he’s a bit of the opposite of Malcolm in that he’s not as political. He simply wants to entertain, either through football or perhaps acting. As Cassius is on the verge of converting or transitioning to Islam, Jim is on the verge of transitioning from the gridiron to Hollywood, going west to be in a Western, from running a ball to running lines of dialogue.
Leslie Odom Jr. (Hamilton and Harriet) co-stars as Sam Cooke, a singer-songwriter dubbed the “King of Soul.” He was a name atop the charts for most of the late 50’s and early 60’s. His dream is to perform at the Copacabana. Of the four men, he’s probably the richest. He drives a fancy car and he stays at a fancy hotel, run by white people, as opposed to the others who stay at a Blacks-only motel on the poor side of town or the predominantly Black part of town. Sam is very cognizant of his relative wealth and what to do to hold onto it or what not to do.
In a sense, that becomes what this film is. It becomes about what Black men in the United States can do and what they can’t do. It becomes what they should do and what they shouldn’t do. It also becomes what they will do and what they won’t do in order to survive or more importantly thrive, to make it through or overcome. It’s also the only film this past year, other than Da 5 Bloods (2020), that gives us interesting and engaging interactions between adult African-American male friendships, the joy, the understanding and the comfort of that.
However, as a good drama, it does have tension and conflict. A lot of that conflict comes down to a veritable struggle between Malcolm and Sam. It’s about what their obligations are, not just as Black men, but Black men who are young and famous, meaning they have a platform or some kind of power. Obviously, battling racism and advancing civil rights are what’s at stake. The question is if they’re utilizing their platforms or power in that regard. Powers crafts that question or questions very superbly. King directs equally so, making this a stage-to-screen adaptation up there with A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) or Fences (2016).
Finally, given that Sam Cooke is a musician, it’s inevitable that his music would play a part in the film, and it is in a very great way. His song “A Change Is Gonna Come” is used in a powerful way. But, during the end credits, Leslie Odom Jr. and Sam Ashworth contribute the original song “Speak Now,” which is a song that absolutely deserves to get an Academy Award nomination as well.
Rated R for language and some violence.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 54 mins.
In select theaters like Rehoboth Beach and available on Amazon Prime on Jan. 15.