“One Night in Miami” largely focuses on the legendary personas of its four major characters, and how those personas play off of each other. Malcolm X, Cassius Clay (soon to be Muhammad Ali), Jim Brown and Sam Cooke are the four characters at the center of this story, which mainly serves as a vehicle to express two very distinct approaches to race relations in 1964.
You would think that four main characters would result in four unique perspectives, but Clay and Brown essentially play the human sponge and comic relief characters, respectively, in this film. Jim Brown is not especially interested in the psychological warfare, while Clay is half-listening and soaking in the arguments made by the characters at odds. Those characters are Malcolm X and Sam Cooke.
Going into the film, I did not expect Cooke to be such a fighter. He is somewhat forced into defending himself from Malcolm’s personal attacks at first, but quickly warms up to the idea of being on the offensive. Malcolm is pretty convinced Sam is approaching his place in the music industry all wrong. I really appreciated how Cooke didn’t back down from defending himself, and even pointed out some of Malcolm’s flawed logic in the process. His arguments, to me, were much stronger than Malcolm’s, and I found myself walking away from “One Night in Miami” thinking that Cooke was definitely the smartest guy in the room.
To be fair to the real, historical characters, I really respect Malcolm X, and I’ve long been a fan of Sam Cooke’s music. Malcolm X’s legacy, in particular, is something of a curiosity. I generally disagree with the focus of his frustration. I tend to think he was more focused on skin color than he was actual systemic issues. Not that he wasn’t concerned with the system (he certainly was), but he was often incapable of seeing issues as anything beyond black and white. As we see him in “One Night in Miami,” he was still very much in this phase of the evil white man being to blame for everything. Not long after when the film takes place, Malcolm took a trip to other areas of the world and eventually toned down his all-or-nothing rhetoric when he acknowledged that people of all kinds can be oppressed or the oppressors. A little late, but this added perspective made him a far more interesting philosopher, in my opinion.
So, back to Sam Cooke being the smartest character in the film. While Malcolm is sure that taking a more directly confrontational approach is right when it comes to taking on the establishment, Cooke makes the case that infiltrating the establishment and changing it from within is the more effective way to gather power in the corner of Black Americans. Cooke’s philosophy is to say make your talent undeniable. Even if you can’t fully prove yourself as a human, you can at least take advantage of the population’s pocket book from behind the scenes. This is a fairly cynical view, but people in Cooke’s mental camp have a point. I mean, you certainly have some control of someone if you can influence their buying habits. If power is money, Cooke has it. If power is the goal, Sam is on the right track.
Again, Malcolm is more concerned with making sure that all Black Americans are treated as exemplary, but I’d argue that this mindset is just unrealistic on a level that goes far beyond race. Most people who are not in the most powerful positions in the country are likely never going to be seen as fully human by the worst of the elite class. Obviously, one should always present themselves as their best self, but expecting everyone else to appreciate what you have to offer is misguided. The least one could do is try enjoying their life and freedoms, while potentially infiltrating this class and making things better for the masses. And by the way, this is why an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or AOC, has such appeal. She’s a regular citizen who rose to power not with militant action, but with a message of equality. And rather than taking up arms, she raised her voice. I like to think that’s a far more powerful weapon.
Sam Zavada is a copy editor with The Standard-Speaker in Hazleton. He previously served as the news clerk at The Standard-Speaker, working with the obituaries and the community and lifestyle pages. Sam’s work in print dates back to his time at King’s College, where he spent two years as the editor in chief of the school’s newspaper, The Crown. Earlier in his time with The Crown, he worked as a staff writer and the entertainment manager. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.