A boxer, a singer, a preacher, and a football player walk into a motel… It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but in this case it not only really happened, but it was four towering figures of their time: Mohammed Ali, Sam Cooke, Malcom X, and Jim Brown. Four men who knew one another well, and all of whom were at inflection points for themselves and all those around them. The gathering was to celebrate the night Cassius Clay decked Sonny Liston and became the reigning world champion.
Kemp Powers imagined that conversation first as a stage play and then as this adaptation, which Regina King (Watchmen) directed as her first big-screen feature. And she did a bang up job choreographing the four men in a tiny room. Despite it being primarily a dialogue-heavy exchange, it never really flags in energy or interest. Kingsley Ben-Adir (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword),
Eli Goree (Riverdale), Aldis Hodge (What Men Want), and Leslie Odom Jr. (Harriet) keep everything moving and offer insight into these pivotal men. Ben-Adir, in particular, delivers a Malcom X near the end of his life full of fire and purpose, but more than equally full of compassion and care. Odom Jr’s chops are something to be reckoned with as well.
This is a surprisingly quiet film for the combination of people involved and the moment in history. It feels, quite literally, like being let into a secret and private party. We know the public-facing versions of these people, but what did they really think in private and what did they admit to each other? Cooke, in particular, has little on record about his private life. Many sides of issues are raised and the result leaves you feeling you understand not just these men, but the era and the ongoing issues more completely. I will say that I was surprised that, with King at the helm, how little there was of the women in the lives of these men on screen. If I have any major criticism of the story, it’s that.
On a side note, writer Powers is about to have a hell of a year. After working on the initial season of Star Trek: Discovery he moved on to the play version of One Night in Miami. Both this movie and the much anticipated and lauded Soul (now only on Disney+) are hitting screens at the same time.