A football player, a civil rights activist, a musician, and a boxer walk into a hotel room.
It’s February 25, 1964 and boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) defeats Sonny Liston (Aaron D. Alexander) for the first time to become the world Heavyweight Champion. Among the observers in the audience are: Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), who is currently at odds with Elijah Muhammad (Jerome A. Wilson), the head of the Nation of Islam; Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), who is currently coming off of one of the greatest NFL seasons of all time; and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.), who has recently been playing to predominantly unsupportive and all-white audiences. The four men agree to meet up after the match in Malcolm X’s hotel room, where personalities clash, friendships and loyalties are tested, opinions and passions are shared, and a lot of history might just have been made… if it were real.
It’s always hard to address films like this where the people involved are real, as are many of the events depicted or referenced, but the actual conversations that are the focus of the story are fiction. This story is really just a study in what happens when you throw four major personalities into the same room. All of these men were legends in their respective fields and their contributions are still well-known. Malcolm X is frequently referenced as a civil rights leader during one of the most tumultuous times in US History (which will probably end one day), Jim Brown still holds 10 NFL records and appeared in a number of great films, Sam Cooke’s songs are still covered frequently, and Cassius Clay, as Muhammad Ali, is probably the most famous boxer of all time. It’s amazing how well the movie points out their extreme talent and success while still pointing out that they faced challenges that no white person would face. There’s a particularly disturbing scene between Jim Brown and a man played by Beau Bridges which is, apparently, directly lifted from Jim Brown’s autobiography.
As with most movies that take place largely in one single location, the film’s strength is in the performances. Each of the four leads has to both represent a known historical figure and also to stand up to the performances of each of the others, which is a hell of a challenge. All four, though, pull it off amazingly. Eli Goree manages to portray Cassius Clay as both the self-promoting egomaniac that he was in public and also as a person with doubts about his conversion and about his life in general. Aldis Hodge plays Brown as a bit of an outsider to the group, with the least radical agenda, but an ambition beyond just being a football player (even though he was one of the best). Also, he nails the voice. Kingsley Ben-Adir captures the persona of Malcolm X as well as almost any actor does, but he adds a wonderful level of vulnerability that many portrayals don’t. Leslie Odom Jr. manages to not only play Sam Cooke, but give several great song performances while doing so. It’s not surprising that he earned a nomination.
The one thing that this movie does portray, even if indirectly, is that while these are all great men, they are also deeply flawed people. They all have their own selfish tendencies, their own flaws, and their own opinions about their roles as representatives of the black community. They all have their own fears and ambitions and I like that they feel like four real people, even if their public personas often dominated their lives. It takes a lot of control to make a movie that walks the line between making them legends and making them men and Regina King managed it in her directorial debut. Amazing.
Overall, it’s a great film and I really recommend it.
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