It is a remarkable thing that happened in 1964. Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke met together in a hotel room in Miami at a crucial time in all their lives. Clay was about to change his name to Mohammad Ali. Jim Brown was moving away from football and into movies. Malcolm X and Sam Cooke would be dead in less than a year, both murdered. What a hell of a night. No one knows what exactly these friends discussed.
That is the focus of playwright Kemp Power's screenplay. Set on the night Clay defeated Sonny Liston for the World Heavyweight Champion, the script tries to imagine what these men talked about with each other. Clay has doubts about changing his name. He doesn't know Malcolm has just broken away from Elijah Muhammad. Ali needs the boxer's support but the decision must be on Clay's own accord. Brown has made his first movie and he likes being a star. Cooke is selling huge numbers of records but is still an outsider apart from his white audiences. At one point Malcolm calls him out for writing songs for white people and ignoring the Civil Rights movement. Cooke would later write "A Change is Gonna Come" which would become an anthem to the movement.
One of the most impressive things about Regina King's directorial debut and Powers' writing is how it makes these men feel real and like people instead of legends. Huge praise must be given to the incredibly talented cast. Eli Goree evokes Cassius Clay in ways Will Smith wish he could have. It is a completely convincing performance that captures his charm and braggadocio. Leslie Odom, Jr. is smooth and charming as Sam Cooke, adding layers of doubt and pain underneath his cool. Aldis Hodge captures Jim Brown's confidence. He is a man who knows his worth and what his role is as a black superstar.
However, it is Kingsley Ben-Adir who has the biggest challenge in bringing a fresh take on Malcolm X to the screen. Denzel Washington's portrayal is recent enough to be in some audience's memory. The film wisely avoids having him make any speeches that were so notable and instead shows a more relaxed if still focused. He is able to joke around with the others but has an agenda he never lets go of. He needs Clay's support and engages with everyone about their role and responsibilities to the black community in order to show Clay the importance of his actions.
These discussions are strikingly relevant and urgent. The film's dialogue crackles with energy and purpose. The performances are all stellar. The film can't entirely escape its stage play roots but King does a nice job taking things away from the hotel room. Her direction of this amazing cast should yield several Oscar nominations if there is any justice.