We all knew Regina King could act even before she won an Oscar. Who knew she could direct? This is her first film behind the camera, with a screenplay Kemp Powers (Soul) adapted from his play. Luckily, Powers’ words work a lot better on the screen than the plays of August Wilson (Fences, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), which always feel like you’re watching a play and not a movie.
These are also the types of films that confuse people, because they involve real people, therefore audiences just assume everything really happened. This is a fictional story about three African-American legends hanging out in a hotel room with Malcolm X in 1964, after a young Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) beat Sonny Liston to became the heavyweight champ. The recreation of the fight was solid (although I would have liked to have seen Ali saying his eyes were stinging, from an apparent substance Liston’s corner put on his gloves to blind him). Also not sure why at the end of the movie, when they put the information about Malcolm X being assassinated, they didn’t include anything about the rematch between Ali and Liston (a fight that most now realize was fixed), or an interesting thing that happened with Sam Cooke. There’s a great scene in the movie where Cooke is lecturing Malcolm on “not just wanting a piece of the pie, but I want the recipe” in regard to his producing and starting a record label to sign black artists. Bobby Womack had a minor hit with “It’s All Over Now” but when the Rolling Stones wanted to cover it, he let them. It went to #1, and he explained how Womack was a bit bummed, until he got that royalty check. It would have been fun for the audience to be told, at the end of the movie on a scroll, that after Cooke was shot and killed by a prostitute and hotel clerk, that Womack married his widow 3 months later, and then also had an affair with his daughter.
And while we all know what became of Jim Brown, but since the movie started with a very powerful scene with Mr. Carlton (Beau Bridges) and Jim Brown, and Bridges’ character telling him his 1,800 rushing yards in a season would never be broken…why not end the movie mentioning Eric Dickerson, O.J. Simpson, Barry Sanders, and San Diegan Terrell Davis (as well as around eight others), who have broken that record, some getting over 2,000 yards in a season.
Anyway, Malcolm X, Cooke, and Brown were all at Clay’s fight, and did know each other. Yet when they go to the (fictional) hotel room afterwards, thinking there’d be a party…Malcolm merely has a few cartons of ice cream (vanilla, no less). Brown wanted female company and Cooke wanted the hooch hidden in his guitar case. Malcolm was busy looking out the window at a couple white men in suits who’d been following him around, and of course, they discussed Clay’s conversion to Islam.
The cast is terrific. Canadian actor Eli Goree (Ballers) totally nails Clay’s boisterous personality, without it feeling like a goofy caricature. British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir was a bit low-key as Malcolm X, but I think that’s what they were going for. Singer/actor Leslie Odom, Jr. (Hamilton) is Sam Cooke. Cooke’s one of my favorite singers (I actually own one of his contracts that I bought at auction). We get to hear a few of his songs, which are wonderful moments. But being a fan of Cooke isn’t the only reason that his scenes were my favorites. Watching him perform “A Change is Gonna Come” on Carson would be powerful enough (we get to see the whole song, which is a treat), but coming after the scene in which Malcolm is telling the guys they should use their star power to bring certain issues up, and playing Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” as an example of the political activism Cooke might consider in future songs…makes it a terrific moment.
It’s also fun to see Cooke in his first performance at the Copacabana, which bombs. And trying to follow the incredible Jackie Wilson (Lonely Teardrops), only to have the mic cut out on him; and how he wins the crowd back with an a capella version of “Chain Gang” — it gave me goosebumps.
The problem is that the first hour of the movie kind of bores the audience, the way Brown and Cooke were bored in a small hotel room, when they’d rather be out partying.
There are lots of discussions about the civil rights of African-Americans, and surprisingly, a lot of it does feel like conversation that’s naturally flowing. Other times, it feels a bit forced. A more organic flow in the discussion would have been welcome.
I think the fact that King has an acting career, helped her get nuanced performances from her cast; it’s just a shame that often, this all feels like a made-for-TV movie.
Cinematographer Tami Reiker has crisp, technicolor that, along with the cars and curtains, give us a great look of the early ‘60s.
While there were a few moments of brilliance, there was also a bit of tediousness. Overall, the film didn’t pack a punch the way it should have.
My wife had a problem with the cursing. No, not because she’s a prude, but because of Malcolm X’s beliefs, and the fact that the people working for him and around him, would have probably kept themselves more in check. (In fact, he’s quoted as saying: “A man curses because he doesn’t have the words to say what’s on his mind.”)I had a bigger problem with a character saying Clay “talks smack” when I’m almost positive that wasn’t an expression in 1964.
I’m giving this Amazon original movie 2 ½ stars out of 5.