Movies

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in One Night in Miami

Did Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, and Muhammad Ali really all party together?

The four characters at a bar in the movie and in an archival photo.
The famous night. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Amazon Studios and Bob Gomel/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images.

One Night in Miami, the directorial debut of Regina King and the movie adaptation of Kemp Powers’ acclaimed 2013 play, is an unusual piece of historical fiction: A setting and context of circumstances that were all real come together to provide a backdrop for an entirely imagined conversation. Much of the movie consists simply of four monumental American figures—revolutionary Malcolm X, singer-songwriter Sam Cooke, athlete and actor Jim Brown, and fighter Muhammad Ali, then still going by Cassius Clay—gathering in a small hotel room on the night of Feb. 25, 1964, each grappling with a significant turning point in his life that would come to alter the course of history. It’s a fascinating, if flawed, view of a particular moment most of us know very little about: what these men actually discussed with one another when they happened to have some hours to themselves, as the turbulence of the ’60s overshadowed everything. According to the Miami Herald, Powers first heard of this impromptu summit in the book Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties, but the screenwriter found it “hard to get more than perfunctory information about what happened in the room,” even with additional research. So what happens in that room is all Powers’ speculation. (Today, Brown is the only surviving member of this cohort.) Still, it would be tacky to call One Night in Miami fan fiction. Instead, it’s a love letter to these four giants and an informed examination of their states of mind at crucial junctures in their respective lives and careers.

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Powers’ script is dialogue-heavy, focusing primarily on the course of a few hours, but it also uses flashbacks to show other events in the four protagonists’ lives, which we can more easily compare with the historical record. The film offers few firm dates besides that one winter day and evening, allowing for an amorphous timeline that nonetheless seems to imply a closer proximity between all the happenings depicted than was actually the case; we end up with a sort of before-and-after effect, implying that this one moment changed everything, even though these four lives were not always in concert with one another’s. Did the scenes proceeding and following that one night in Miami all really happen? Were all of these men really friends before that Hampton meeting? Did Malcolm X actually only offer ice cream to his guests? We break it down.

The Prologues

Cassius Clay in real life and in the movie.
Cassius Clay. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by the Courier-Journal and Amazon Studios.
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The film starts off with separate events that precede the February 1964 night by varying degrees of time. The very first one we see is Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) in the midst of a 1963 fight against British boxer Henry “the Hammer” Cooper (Sean Monaghan) at London’s Wembley Stadium, and backed by trainers Angelo Dundee (Michael Imperioli) and Drew Bundini Brown (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.). The events depicted on screen appear to closely match how part of the fight occurred in real life: By the third round, Clay had given a punch to Cooper that opened a gash over his eyes. But in the following round, after Clay danced around a bit, Cooper managed to land a blow right on his jaw that caused Clay to fall against the ropes, making that bout one of only four fights ever in which that great fighter was knocked down by his opponent. The fight was soon after stopped by the referees, who declared Clay the winner.

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Next, we’re inside the legendary Manhattan nightclub Copacabana, where Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) is set to perform. The show depicted here appears to have been staged six years earlier, on March 6, 1958; comedian Myron Cohen (Randall Newsome), seen in the film giving a set before Cooke goes on, was also on the bill that night. At that point, Cooke had just struck out on his own, having recently left the popular gospel group the Soul Stirrers, and the tension was real: As the Chicago Tribune noted, this was one of the first opportunities for Cooke to “win over a conservative white audience,” even though, as his manager states in the film, his first solo single, the gorgeous “You Send Me,” had already gone to No. 1. Cooke’s reception there was chilly, as shown in Miami, and he would indeed later admit that he had “bombed.”

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We then turn to Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), driving in his actual hometown of St. Simons, Georgia, to meet a white longtime family friend, Mr. Carlton (Beau Bridges). I could not find any verification of the incident shown in the film, wherein Carlton warmly greets Brown and praises his NFL records before forbidding him from coming into the house and calling him a racial slur (although the scene unfortunately rang true for Hodge, as it has for many other Black Americans). However, the record and game that the two discuss both actually occurred: Brown’s 1,863-yard single-season rush as running back for the Cleveland Browns set an official record on Oct. 20, 1963, and the loss against the Green Bay Packers that Brown references likely refers to the Playoff Bowl game that took place on Jan. 5, 1964, in Miami.

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Betty X in real life and in the movie.
Betty X. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images and Amazon Studios.

The film then shifts to the house of Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and his wife, Betty X (Joaquina Kalukango). Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad is seen speaking on TV while Betty and Malcolm discuss the latter’s plans to formally leave the NOI and start his own Muslim organization, something Malcolm had indeed been planning throughout the 1960s as he’d increasingly become disillusioned with the institution—even as he simultaneously, and secretly, roped Clay into the NOI. Betty and Malcolm’s conversation also references other historical facts, including Elijah Muhammad’s sexual misconduct involving his secretaries (which Malcolm had publicized by that point, causing his suspension), the NOI mosque in Boston that Malcolm headed, and Malcolm’s mentee Louis X, a defender of Muhammad’s who is known today as current NOI leader and notorious anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan.

The Day Of

Sam Cooke in real life and in the movie.
Sam Cooke. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by RCA Victor Records/Wikipedia and Amazon Studios.

After the prologue, One Night in Miami jumps right to Feb. 25 in Miami, opening the day with Cassius Clay’s legendary underwater boxing-pose photographs—which weren’t actually taken in 1964 but three years earlier, in a shoot that ended up in Life magazine and gave Clay an early measure of national exposure. It is true, however, that he couldn’t swim, something the photographer, Flip Schulke, would only learn decades after the fact.

The boxer’s fight against Sonny Liston, of course, did happen that day, and he did have the consistent support of three of his closest friends: Malcolm would end up sitting ringside, Cooke would also watch from the audience, and Brown would provide commentary. (Malcolm, who was a photography enthusiast, is also seen taking pictures of the fight with his camera, which is true to the record.) The hotel Malcolm stays in—and in which the conversational centerpiece takes place—is particularly significant: The Hampton House Motel, located in the neighborhood of Brownsville, was an important spot for Miami’s Black community, as the city was deeply segregated at the time and Jim Crow laws prevented Black Americans from staying at locations within Miami Beach, even though that area was where touring Black celebrities, including musicians and athletes, would perform and play. Malcolm did stay there on Feb. 25, and it was in actuality where the one night in Miami went down, as Clay had wanted to celebrate the potential victory in a low-key way with Malcolm. As shown on screen, Cooke, however, did have a spot at the opulent, segregated Fontainebleau thanks to the arm-twisting of his then-manager Allen Klein.

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That night’s fight against Liston is, of course, the stuff of legend, the consecration of a new heavyweight champion of the world. Clay won the fight after six rounds, as Liston would end up giving up right before the seventh go, as seen on screen, and a then-underdog would assume a new throne. As for Clay’s gushing to Malcolm about how Gorgeous George is his favorite wrestler, that’s true to form: Clay admitted to taking many cues from the preening pro wrestler.

The Night at the Hotel

Malcolm X in real life and in the movie.
Malcolm X. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by the Library of Congress and Amazon Studios.
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According to Dave Zirin’s Jim Brown: Last Man Standing, the football star really did want to have a big party at the Fontainebleau, in contrast to Malcolm and Clay’s plan for a quieter evening at the Hampton. It’s after the four finally gather there, however, that the details get fuzzier—though the detail of Malcolm offering vanilla ice cream in lieu of booze, due to his faith, was real.

The ensuing conversation between the four legends often refers to real-life events and sometimes fudges things to serve the movie’s purposes. Clay’s decision to join the NOI becomes a heated topic right away, and he did, in fact, make his conversion public the next day. Brown talks about starting an acting career—though he states he’s “not quitting football”—mentioning a Western in which he’s been cast as a Buffalo Soldier tracking an ex-Confederate troop who’s being protected by Apaches. He mentions that he’s killed halfway through the film but is nevertheless satisfied with his paycheck, a then-hefty $37,000. The film Brown seems to be referring to is 1964’s Rio Conchos, his silver screen debut and the catalyst for a prolific second career. (Clay takes the opportunity to state that he should be in movies; he would in later years land a few starring roles but by that point had already appeared as himself in some high-profile sports films.) Malcolm’s in-the-works autobiography, which he was gradually telling to Alex Haley, also gets a mention, though it’s also said at one point, correctly, that Malcolm “didn’t trust writers.” (The final shot of the film shows Malcolm sitting at his desk with the finished manuscript.) Malcolm also talks about visiting Mecca and Egypt, which was known officially at that time as the United Arab Republic—and he did go to both places after leaving the NOI, even meeting with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

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Sam Cooke, still bristling at the 1958 Copacabana performance, determines he’ll “go back to Copa,” which he would do later that year in a successful tour that resulted in a famed live album. The discussion of Cooke’s music leads to one of the most heated flashpoints in the conversation, regarding the singer’s contributions to the civil rights movement. Malcolm claims Cooke is “not using [his] voice to help the cause.” Cooke then trumpets the fact that he had a deal to gain ownership of his masters, started a record label that signed Black artists, and coordinated a royalties windfall for one of his songwriters, Bobby Womack, by “invest[ing] in the British Invasion” and accepting the Rolling Stones’ request to cover the Womack-penned “It’s All Over Now” (all of which is true—plus, Cooke was the first Black artist to establish his own label). Jim Brown’s famed financial contributions to Black-owned businesses are also brought up, as well as Clay’s encounter with the Beatles just a week prior.

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Malcolm generally dismisses Cooke, casting his megahits as fluff and putting on a record of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” to provide a counterexample of a socially conscious hit. I could not find any record of Malcolm being such an avowed Dylan fan, and moreover, the insinuations that Dylan’s original “Blowin’ ” was a megahit, that Cooke had not made socially conscious music before this very point, and that it took Malcolm X’s importuning to spur him to do so are all more than a bit dubious, as my colleague Jack Hamilton has written in Slate. After all, Cooke had already recorded the powerful civil rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come” in January of that year and, contrary to the film’s implication that he only sang it live on TV after the events depicted, had performed it on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on Feb. 7. (Sadly, no footage of the performance exists.) While there is not much we can confirm regarding the men’s actual conversation, we can say for a fact that Malcolm would not have castigated Cooke for not having written a song like “Change.” It is true, however, that Cooke had been inspired by Bob Dylan and “Blowin’ ” while writing that song.

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A few other details can be confirmed, primarily regarding Malcolm X. He really did refer to JFK’s assassination as an instance of “the chickens coming home to roost.” He and Cooke really did first meet in Harlem. And he was captured taking a photo of Clay at the Hampton House’s bar that night, as seen at the top of this article.

The Aftermath

Jim Brown in real life and in the movie.
Jim Brown. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos byBettmann/Getty Images and Amazon Studios.
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After the bar scene, One Night in Miami shows a little bit of what happened to each figure following that February brouhaha. Sam Cooke is seen performing “Change” on Johnny Carson, which, as we’ve already established, is a misleading version of events. Meanwhile, Clay is shown being consecrated by Elijah Muhammad, who declares the athlete’s new name to be Muhammad Ali. The newly devoted Ali would soon sever ties with Malcolm, although he would later disavow the NOI and write that his estrangement from Malcolm was one of the biggest regrets of his life.

As seen in Miami, Malcolm X’s house in Queens really was firebombed in early 1965. Assailants tossed a Molotov cocktail through the living room window, starting a massive fire within the home and forcing Malcolm and his family to evacuate. Malcolm suspected that Elijah Muhammad and his groups were behind this, as he knew the Nation of Islam was after him for his supposed treachery. He would be assassinated just a week later, allegedly by vengeful NOI members.

Jim Brown is finally seen announcing his retirement from football to pursue acting full time, noting that the Cleveland Browns had been attempting to fine him for the absences he took for filming. Brown did in fact retire in 1966 at the peak of his athletic career, having devoted much of his time that year to making the hit war movie The Dirty Dozen. He would go on to star in many other classic films over the decades, including The Running Man, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, and Mars Attacks!

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