“WWhich of us does it not belong to? asks soul singer Sam Cooke (From Hamilton Leslie Odom Jr), casting his gaze on the men in front of him. It’s February 25, 1964, and meeting Cooke in a modest hotel room in Miami Beach are political activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), who was just crowned heavyweight. world boxing champion. All four are, in Clay’s words, “young, black, fair, unapologetic, famous.” Cooke’s taunt is the trick question at the heart of Regina King’s skilful and spirited directorial debut.
Written by Kemp Powers (co-writer and co-director of the recent Pixar hit soul) and based on his 2013 play of the same name, the film imagines the four men gathered to celebrate Clay’s victory. Expecting a party with booze and girls, they are treated to vanilla ice cream and a heated debate instead. “I thought we would reflect,” says Malcolm, Clay’s spiritual mentor, who is about to become Muhammad Ali and convert to the Nation of Islam.
King made a name for herself as an actress, winning an Academy Award in 2019 for If Beale Street could speak. As a filmmaker, he has keen instincts, breaking down the one-act structure of the play with a prologue that connects the characters. Cooke performs with a performance at the Copacabana Club, singing a version of Tammy to a crowd of half-hearted whites (“I liked it so much more when Debbie Reynolds sang it,” mutters one viewer). Brown drives a flashy car to an old Georgia plantation house, where a white family friend (Beau Bridges) flatters him and calls him the N word at the same time. Their gathering is warm, friendly, and confined to the front porch.
By exposing the personal and professional humiliations suffered by Cooke and Brown, King and Powers point to the idea that individual wealth, success and fame may not be enough to transcend the structural problem of racism. By early 1964, the civil rights movement was gaining popularity and momentum. Still, the fight was barely over. The Civil Rights Act did not become law until July of that year.
There are resonances between the transformative and vibrant energy of that historic moment and the current global struggle for black liberation. King seems to have been drawn to this in recent acting roles: James Baldwin’s Barry Jenkins adaptation. Yes Beale Street could speakand the TV version of Watchmen, on the mythology of a white supremacist group, for which he won an Emmy last year. Kemp’s script, then, which explores the nuances of anti-racist protest, is a wise choice for King’s first film as a director.
What’s more, the conversations between Brown, Cooke, Clay, and Malcolm X are still going on today. “If I win them over playing our music, I’m breaking down doors for everyone, ”says Cooke, defending his right to determine his own creative and business perspectives. Malcolm X is suspicious of white “sponsorship gestures.” Brown highlights Malcolm’s fair skin privilege, noting that “we are all far from equal.” King and Powers make a virtue of that difference, emphasizing that the black identity is not a monolith, a response to Cooke’s line that one of them does not belong.
The ensemble cast electrifies Powers’ dialogue, competing between black power and integration, activism and commerce, spiritual clarity, pork chops and sex. Malcolm X is portrayed by Ben-Adir with a fragility that subtly foreshadows the murder of the civil rights leader the following year. His seriousness is shaken and his cold intellect brought to the boiling point by the energetic and equally energetic Cooke; Odom is a charismatic lightning rod on paper. In their conviction, or perhaps their arrogance, Cooke and Malcolm X are portrayed as two sides of the same coin.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism