Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
USA, 2020. ABKCO Films, Snoot Entertainment. Screenplay by Kemp Powers, based on his play. Cinematography by Tami Reiker. Produced by Jess Wu Calder, Keith Calder, Jody Klein. Music by Terence Blanchard. Production Design by Page Buckner, Barry Robison. Costume Design by Francine Jamison-Tanchuck. Film Editing by Tariq Anwar. AFI Awards 2020. Golden Globe Awards 2020. Gotham Awards 2020. Independent Spirit Awards 2020. National Board of Review Awards 2020. North Carolina Film Critics Awards 2020. Online Film Critics Awards 2020. Philadelphia Film Critics Awards 2020. Toronto International Film Festival 2020. Washington Film Critics Awards 2020.
It’s 1964 and a boxer named Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) has made history in a fight with Sonny Liston that Sports Illustrated will later call the fourth greatest sports moment of the twentieth century. Clay’s victory confirms his belief that he is, as he later dubbed himself, “The Greatest”, but Miami Beach’s segregation laws require that he vacate the island after the fight, taking up residence at a motel where he has invited his three best friends to join him in a celebration: recording artist and superstar Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), activist leader Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and NFL football god and soon-to-be movie star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). It is at this point that you come to understand that Regina King’s emotionally affecting directorial debut is an adaptation of a theatrical piece, reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg’s Insignificance (also based on a play), in which real-life figures are presented as idea totems who will bounce their ideas off each other in the one playing space, more or less. The film does take the opportunity to move the action into other spaces and, like previous stage adaptations such as August Osage County, does not do so badly but certainly disingenuously, but the majority of it is these four major names in black popular culture and politics of the time butting heads over everything going on outside their room as well as within their own minds and hearts. The majority of conflict is between Cooke, who considers himself a trailblazer for being an African-American business tycoon, and Malcolm X, who looks down on what he sees as Cooke’s compromises with abusive white culture, believing that only by sticking to hard-line principles can things ever get better for a population of Americans who are treated as second-class citizens in their own country (the poignancy of their difficult relationship being, also, that of the four characters they are the two who will not live to be old men). Their arguments vacillate spontaneously between mutual understanding and flat-out warfare and put the other two members of the party into doubt about their own feelings for the future: Brown has recently shot his film debut in the western Rio Conchos and believes he can make headway as a black movie star, and Clay is almost certain he is ready to join the nation of Islam and change his name to Muhammad Ali. King never allows the theatricality of either the piece or the dialogue to be a liability dramatically, coaxing powerful performances that find emotional reservoirs of anger, desperation and joy in the exchanging of these ideas and using her very talented actors to reveal aspects of these famous, at this point almost monolithic figures as we’ve never seen them before. Behind his delightful, charismatic swagger, Clay is sensitive and concerned about his impending commitment, while Malcolm X, who is played with exceptional finesse by Ben-Adir, is growing disillusioned with the Nation’s leader Elijah Muhammad and is haunted by the feeling of death’s approach. Powers was reportedly inspired to write the play because of his own time spent as the exception in an all-white writers room, and uses the imaginative nature of the piece to present the relevance of these characters to a modern-day context, the issue of what it means to be working towards the betterment of a just cause is still something that inspires a great deal of argument (and that argument tends to allow prevailing oppressive powers to remain unchanged). This may make the film sound like homework instead of entertainment, but the beautiful recreation of the period and generous infusion of humour keep it from ever feeling like a tedious screed; perhaps it doesn’t quite equal the sum of its parts, but those parts are all compelling and King’s choice to to cap it off with Odom’s stirring performance of “A Change Is Gonna Come” (an anachronism as that song was already in release by the time this story takes place) is a stirring conclusion to a powerful experience.