In 1964, newly crowned heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay, political activist Malcolm X, soul singer Sam Cooke, and legendary NFL running back Jim Brown were all well known, all influential and all Black. But “One Night in Miami” shows the conflict in opinion on economic freedom as a form of liberation, along with the dichotomy between true leadership and influence.

“One Night in Miami” is Oscar-winning actress Regina King’s directorial debut and is based on a fictional stage play of the same name by Kemp Powers. On Feb. 25, 1964, a 22-year-old Clay (Eli Goree) is indomitable and arguably one of the greatest athletes in the world after upsetting former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in a world championship fight in Miami. 

With spirits high, a comical Clay is on top of the world and invites Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) to Malcolm X’s (Kingsley Ben-Adir) hotel room at the Hampton House — a hotel known to be a welcoming spot for Black stars in segregated Miami, where someone as famous as Cooke couldn’t book his own hotel room at the popular Fontainebleau.

But Brown and Cook are caught off guard when they realize that they are the only ones invited to the champ’s victory party. Clay had invited all three men to the fight, but the night also meant that Malcolm X would be by his side when he told Brown and Cooke that he is now Muslim.

Photo: Patti Perret/Amazon Studios

Clay sees all three men as his brothers, but his relationship with Malcolm X extends into one of spiritual guidance. “Ain’t no way I’m going into that ring without my insurance policy,” he explains. 

Almost decades Clay’s senior, Malcolm X takes his role as an older brother and advisor seriously, and he seems to see Clay’s win as a win of his own. However, at the same time, he’s dealing with the strain of a poor relationship between him and his own mentor, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. He is planning to leave the organization to create his own, but he hasn’t shared these plans with his friends, including Clay, who he’s been recruiting.

Malcolm X also feels—or knows, rather—that he is being followed and that it’s his responsibility to hold the other men accountable for the role they need to play in the Civil Rights Movement while he is alive. 

And because Malcolm X knows he may not be around much longer, this push for his friends to be the leaders he wants them to be is urgent. When Brown tells him, “We are not anyone’s weapons, Malcolm,” he replies, “You need to be, Jimmy. You need to be for us to win.”

But for Cooke, Black freedom is economic freedom. As an entrepreneur in the music industry, he sees economic empowerment as the way to Black freedom, mirroring the ways white businesses make their money. At 33, Cooke is financially accomplished. He owns the masters to his records, he started a label and is producing Black artists, which was highly unusual at the time

This argument of whether money can essentially be an effective tool to fight racist systems is at the heart of the film’s biggest rift, one between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke. Malcolm X accuses Cooke of pandering to white audiences.

Leslie Odom Jr. stars in ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI Photo: Patti Perret/Amazon Studios

But Cooke sees white audiences as a means for capturing a portion of the music market share and white businesses as a model for making money.

Cooke’s roots in Chicago may be a way to explain his view on life and his money-over-everything mentality. Born in Clarksdale, Miss., Cooke’s family settled in the city’s Black Bronzeville neighborhood when he was two years old. Most of his formative years were spent in Chicago, where he witnessed much of the corruption today’s Black Chicagoans cite: aldermanic privilege, Black leaders who are unable to pass the torch to younger generations, and industries that are difficult — if not impossible — to break into.

For Cooke, there’s hypocrisy in Malcolm X telling him to ignore economics while being financially supported by the Nation of Islam, whose leader was living in an-almost 10,000-square-feet house also used as the organization’s home base, valued at over $2 million today. Cooke says he sees families like his on the South Side of Chicago struggle while Black leaders live like “pharaohs.”

“I know where Elijah Muhammad’s house is—it’s the biggest one for miles around, looks like the mayor’s residence,” Cooke tells Malcolm X. “[Muhammad] never says nothing about the crooked Black aldermen who’s running numbers, pushing drugs, doing all the things to hurt the community, meanwhile condemning those white devils.”

And even in 2021, the fact that poverty is still so heavily concentrated in the city’s Black communities, it absolutely does not feel like we’ve reached liberation.

So Cooke was a product of a Chicago system that pushed him to hustle, one that made him work harder and smarter than anyone else—especially if you’re young, and gifted, and Black. —and it makes you a student of how other businesses thrive so that you can use those funds to support your community. 

Like Brown explains to Malcolm X when urging him to lay off of Cooke, “If the goal is to really be free, then we have to be economically free … [and] no one is more economically free than him.”

But Malcolm X’s focus on Cooke and his constant judgment is not because he doesn’t like him: It’s because he very much loves him. And, as we can clearly see, Malcolm X believes it’s his responsibility to push Cooke and to hold him accountable for what he is or is not doing with his influence. To him, Cooke might have the best outlet of all of the men.

“You can move mountains without lifting a finger,” he tells him.

Photo by Patti Perret/Amazon Studios

He asks Cooke why he hasn’t written any songs as deep and personal to the struggle as Bob Dylan’s 1963 song, “Blowin’ In The Wind.” Naturally upset, Cooke privately shares with Brown that just because he hasn’t released any records about the movement doesn’t mean he hasn’t written any. 

In reality, Cooke did write a hit movement anthem song, “A Change is Gonna Come,” but it was formally released as a B-side after he was killed at the age of 33 in December 1964. 

According to the New Yorker, Cooke was inspired to write the song by American folk artist Bob Dylan who penned “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a 1960s protest song which hit number two on the Billboard pop chart. Malcolm X, whose death is mentioned in the film, was killed at the age of 39 in February 1965, a couple of months after Cooke.

“I know I’m not the shrewd business person you are, my brother, but since you say being vocally in the struggle is bad for business, why has this old song gone higher on the pop charts than anything you got out?” Malcolm X says to Cooke.

“One Night in Miami” is a film that is worthy of Oscar nominations. The actors brought each historical figure to life in a way that is somehow both sharp and comforting, in a plot that is both moving and heartwarming, with dialogue that is both poignant and humorous. It’s a movie that feels as if it’s constantly moving, even though it mostly takes place inside Malcolm X’s hotel room — a serious feat for a film that’s adapted from a play.

And more personally, for me, it’s a film that challenges me to re-evaluate my place in history, which is especially important during this time of unrest and racial reckonings across the country. I’m reminded of how I’m within the very age range of all the greats I admire and aspire to be like, and that this is the time where we work together, hold each other accountable, and ask each other the very essential question: What are you doing to further our community?

‘One Night in Miami’ is scheduled for digital release on Amazon Prime Video on Jan. 15.

is a freelance writer for The TRiiBE.