- Regina King
- Run Time
- 1 hour and 54 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
Actress Regina King’s first feature film is based on scriptwriter Kemp Powers’ 2013 play about the night when Cassius Clay won the World Heavy Weight Boxing title over Sonny Liston on February 25, 1964. I want to say up front that it is a “must see” film, bringing together a number of strands of the systemic racism that I have been urging readers to examine through various films.
Set in the still segregated city where Clay beat the 7-1 odds in his bid for the championship, it is a fictionalized account of a real meeting of four friends– Clay, his mentor Malcolm X, soul singer Sam Cooke, and NFL superstar Jim Brown. The star of the boxer, who soon would become Muhammad Ali, was rising, and those of the other three celebrities was already shining brightly overhead, but the film makes as clear as the coldest of winter nights that white racism still more reigns over a Black person, no matter how famous he might become.
In four vignettes prior to Ali’s match, set far from the Florida city, we see examples of systemic racism:
*In London Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) dances rings around his bruised and bloodied opponent, boasting of his skills and beauty. Then a lucky punch knocks him to the canvass, much to the pleasure of the White fans.
*In Los Angeles Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) fulfills his dream of performing at the Whites Only Copacabana Club, but his band is not allowed to back him. The white diners look on with disdain as he tries to placate them with his version of “Tammy,” some of them getting up and walking out.
*Returning to his family home on St. Simon’s Island, footballer Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) is welcomed onto the portico of a large mansion where his white neighbor Mr. Carlton (Beau Bridges) cordially welcomes him back, asking his servant to bring them glasses of lemonade. The host is proud to be able to say they are from the same hometown, and he speaks of the long relationship between their families. However, the friendly encounter ends on a hurtful note that reminds the Black athlete that his station is below that of his host and that he must stay in his place. No matter how high a Black man rises, he is still not the equal of a White person.
*In his Detroit home Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) tries to reassure his anxious wife Betty Shabazz (Joaquina Kalukango) that they will be alright when he leaves the Nation of Islam because of the corruption of its leader Elijah Muhammad (Jerome Wilson).
Before the fight Cassius meets with Malcolm X in the latter’s motel room where the Nation of Islam minister takes out two prayer rugs and leads his guest in prayer. The novice Clay watches his friend closely, emulating his gestures as they cross arms and kneel. After the fight, the fighter plans to announce to the world his conversion to Islam. Back at the arena dressing room Clay’s trainer warns him about his closeness to the notorious Black Muslim. The boxer says he is free to choose his own friends.
As a result of his defeat in Great Britain, the boastful Clay surprises all the white reporters and spectators when he batters Liston to a bloody defeat. He agrees to Malcolm X’s invitation to join him and the other two friends in Malcolm’s room for a private victory celebration at the Hampton House Motel & Villas, situated in the black section of the city and supposedly controlled by Black owners. Sam is the first to arrive and is admitted by the two Nation of Islam men who guard the door. He and Jim Brown are disappointed that the party consists of the four of them, minus the expected party girls and drinks. When Malcolm is out of the room Sam shares the whiskey flask he carries in his guitar case because alcoholic drinks are banned by the Nation of Islam—and we learn from regretful remarks, so is the pork the friends love so much. To the dismay of his guests, all that Malcolm offers them for refreshment are two containers of ice-cream—vanilla at that.
Ali is filled with youthful exuberance (he was just 22 at the time), frequently exclaiming how beautiful he is as he gazes into mirrors and bounces on the bed while exulting, “I am 210-and-a-half pounds of trouble.” Sam Cooke and Jim Brown are proud of their highly successful careers, with Brown telling Cooke while they are alone that he has just made a movie. The most serious of them is Malcolm X, always aware that they are up against a racist system, and in his own case, is in danger from his own leader once word of his leaving the fold of the Nation of Islam gets out. Thus far he has not revealed this to anyone but his wife. He has been grooming the boxer for membership in the Nation, and as their sometimes contentious conversation continues into the night, we learn that he has been following Sam Cook’s career as well, even sneaking away to catch his act in several cities.
Malcolm has an agenda for the evening. He is both solicitous good friend and activist recruiter as their talk ranges over their careers, racism, fame, and power. The activist believes that their fame and power should be used to upbuild the brothers who are living in miserable poverty. He becomes like a prosecutor with Cooke, placing an album on the record player as if he were in court presenting damning evidence. We hear Cooke’s velvety voice singing a love song. Malcolm points out that he sings only bland songs that are far removed from the racist world of Black listeners Sam replies that protest songs will not draw an audience, and so Malcolm puts on another disk, and we hear the raspy voice belonging to Bob Dylan as he sings, “How many miles must a man walk down/Before you call him a man?” He asks why a white man should be the author of such a popular song that captures so well the goal of their struggle against racism.
Sam defends himself by describing his success in the commercial world of music, which should inspire fellow Black musicians. “The only color that matters out there is that green.” He owns the masters to all his recordings and founded his own label to produce Black artists. He reveals the fact that Bobby Womack’s original “It’s All Over Now” made it to No. 94 on Billboard’s Top 100 chart, and that when the Rolling Stones wanted to cover it, they had to come to him (Cooke) for permission because he had bought the rights. The Stones’ version shot to the top, sweeping aside Womack’s version, but every copy sold of the Stones’ version brought royalties to both Black men. Cooke is proud of his entrepreneurial drive and that he is not beholden to a white employer, as Brown is.
Malcolm is not buying this, wanting Cooke to become more directly involved in the movement against racism. He spews out, “You’re just a wind-up toy in a music box, A monkey dancing for an organ grinder to them.” Feeling that Cooke is a sell out, pandering to White audiences, rather than attacking racism through his music, Malcolm’s criticisms are similar to Jesus’ insistence that his followers are to count for something, are to be like salt and light that affect those around them.
The atmosphere in the room becomes so charged with hostility that Sam angrily departs. He does return, thanks to one of the men sent after him, but there is further conflict, especially between Malcolm and Ali when the latter learns that Malcolm will be leaving the Nation to start his own group. The boxer feels used, this adding fuel to the fiery exchanges. However, when their bodyguard interrupts to tell them that the press has discovered their whereabouts, Ali asks Malcolm to come and stand with him as he is about to announce his conversion. But a little later, when Ali is formally inducted into the Nation by Elijah Muhammad rather than into Malcolm’s dissident group, it is evident that their friendship has come to its end.
Other scenes, serving as end notes, show Malcolm and his family, dressed in their night clothes, fleeing their burning home, a prelude to his soon to come assassination. Sam Cooke is shown on Johnny Carson’s show singing his new song “A Change Is Gonna Come,” destined when it is released after his own untimely death to become a popular Civil Rights song. And Jim Brown, the only one of the four icons still alive, becomes an action film star with a string of movies to his credit.
Thanks to the skills of director Regina King, writer Kemp Powers and a great cast, this is one of the most memorable films of the year, certain to be included in the soon to come Oscar buzz. Ms. King’s skill as a director should come as no surprise because she has a stream of credits directing TV episodes. Eli Goree’s performance as the silver tongued Muhammad Ali is spot-on, his child-like exuberance keeping us from regarding him as a vain, self-centered boor. Leslie Odom Jr. sings Sam Cooke’s songs beautifully, the film concluding appropriately with his rendition of “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Aldis Hodge captures the dignity and restraint of James Brown.
Kingsley Ben-Adir sheds every trace of his British background, his version of Malcolm X, in contrast to Denzel Washington’s powerful leader in Spike Lee’s great classic, capturing the fear and uncertainty of the activist’s last year when he was dogged by FBI agents as well as worrying about the threat of Elijah Muhammad’s men. (There is a brief scene in which Malcolm spots his chief bodyguard talking with the two Whites who had been trailing him and receiving a paper or payment from them. Also, a brief one in which we see him looking over the mss. of his Autobiography that he was written in conjunction with Alex Haley.) The film also displays the humanity of the iconic activist—first the apprehension he shares with his wife Betty, then his great interest in photography and cameras, and the delightful telephone scene in which he talks with his little daughter.
Regina King, in her interview with Variety, has described her film as “a love letter to Black men.” And so, it is, and it allows us Whites to become the fly on the wall listening in to talented Black men freely exchanging their views, airing their conflicts as they never would in the presence of strangers, White or Black. No one, of course, knows what those four icons really said to one another on the night of February 25, 1964, but Kemp Powers gives us a good idea of their core beliefs and views. For me this film is akin to The Two Popes, the imagined encounter between two Roman Catholic leaders with very divergent views. Now that it is available in both theaters and on Amazon Prime, there is no reason to miss it. You owe it not only to yourself for stimulating entertainment, but also to a better understanding of why the Black Lives Matters movement must continue, with informed White as well as Black members.
This review will be in the February issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.