How entertaining can resistance be? This is what four African American icons – from Muhammad Ali to Malcolm X – ask themselves in “One Night in Miami”. See it on Amazon.
Fictionalizations about real encounters between well-known intellectuals with one another or with other celebrities have recently become popular. The bestseller “Todtnauberg” (published last year) by Hans-Peter Kunisch is about the historically documented bonding between the anti-Semitic existentialist Martin Heidegger and the Jewish poet Paul Celan, Michael Köhlmeier’s “Zwei Herren am Strand” (2014) about several meetings between comedy and Fernando Meirelles recently dedicated a Netflix chamber play with a star cast (Anthony Hopkins as Joseph Ratzinger) to humanist Chaplin and future enemy of Hitler, Winston Churchill, and the buddy dynamic between Benedict and Francis, which is said to have sprouted in the run-up to the latest papal election : “The Two Popes” (2019).
“One Night in Miami” fits in seamlessly with this series of recent male friendship fictions, but increases the number of clashing legends: It’s about a historically documented night, civil rights activist Malcolm X, boxing icon Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay), football -Professional Jim Brown and blues music star Sam Cooke spent February 1964 together in a motel in Miami – all dark-skinned, US citizens and, at the time they entered the film scene, still “legends in the making”, legends in the making process.
The meeting really took place. What was said
There are no records of the conversations. The narrative fills a void. You know the encounter took place, but you only know from hearsay what was being talked about. Nonetheless, the razor-sharp dialogue drama staged by actress Regina King (supporting roles Oscar 2019) is not a complete fantasy – enough is known about the men that the topics of conversation can be settled in the realm of the probable. We also know the arguments and the habitus of the historical personalities, which makes their statements and gestures seem credible.
Fortunately, King saves on background information and dispenses with archival recordings – her history fiction prefers intimacy of the intimacy of schoolmasters or sensational histories. The reduction to the essentials works: the conversations are exciting. For the rest, there is Wikipedia.
As with Köhlmeier, interestingly, a section of the time is described when the turning point has not yet been reached. In 1927 Chaplin and Churchill did not yet know of their coming importance as anti-fascists. Ali and Malcolm X are also not yet aware of their upcoming role as influential representatives of the coup in “One Night in Miami”. They are still looking for their own common voice. On the eve of the black civil rights revolt, you can hear them reflect aloud about their hopes and doubts, and what contribution they could make.
How to combine politics and black pop culture
The conversations of the travel community in the highly precise drama revolve around tricky questions. The athletes and entertainers in the group (Ali, Sam, Jim) wonder how the seriousness of their social concern should harmonize with their commercial physical and entertainment arts. The activist (Malcolm X), how radical the protest has to be to shock. And all together they ponder how politics and black pop culture can be reconciled without one watering down or using the other as an instrument. How entertaining can resistance be? How provocative or compliant are the arguments, how combative or humble the attitude, how angry or serene is the public appearance?
The roof, the rooms and the surroundings of the vacation rental in Florida are staged as a breeding chamber of an activist consciousness. As soon as the skepticism has dissipated that “One Night in Miami” could only be a filmed theater (the factual too often turns into poetic), magical moments emerge from the flow of speech at a late hour. Malcolm X philosophizes about Bob Dylan’s “Blowin ‘in the Wind”. Ali about resistance. Sam sings in languid blues: “Change will come, yes it will.” A remarkable directorial debut – and highly topical against the backdrop of “Black Lives Matter”.[R3ZAP]
(“Die Presse”, print edition, January 15, 2021)