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Regina King Imagines What 4 Black Icons' Gathering In 1964 Might Have Looked Like

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It sounds like quite a party - four African American icons gathering after a heavyweight championship bout in 1964 - new champ Cassius Clay, joined by three famous pals, fullback Jim Brown, singer Sam Cooke and activist Malcolm X. Wish you'd been a fly on the wall? Well, critic Bob Mondello says the movie "One Night In Miami" grants that wish.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: It really happened at the Hampton House Motel on February 25, 1964. In the film's imagining of how things went down, Malcolm, who'd been flown in by the soon-to-be champ as his spiritual adviser, suggested they get together afterwards - four friends celebrating the man of the hour on his big night.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI")

ELI GOREE: (As Cassius Clay) Yes, Cassius Marcellus Clay is the new heavyweight champion of the world, boy.

LESLIE ODOM JR: (As Sam Cooke) Yes, he is.

GOREE: (As Cassius Clay) And I don't even have a scratch on my...

MONDELLO: He spies himself in the mirror.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI")

GOREE: (As Cassius Clay) Oh, my goodness.

ALDIS HODGE: (As Jim Brown) Cash (ph)...

ODOM: (As Sam Cooke) What's wrong, Cash?

HODGE: (As Jim Brown) What - Cash, what...

GOREE: (As Cassius Clay) Why am I so pretty? And I'm only 22 years old. There is no way I'm supposed to be this great.

MONDELLO: We've met the guys separately by this time - Clay, sparring in practices and in the ring; Jim Brown, arguably the greatest running back in NFL history, paying a visit to a white Georgia neighbor who swears that...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I've never been prouder to say that I live on St. Simons Island than I am now - place where the great Jim Brown is from.

MONDELLO: But they're out on his porch because he doesn't allow - I'm paraphrasing - Black people in his house. We've watched king of soul Sam Cooke opening to a white audience at the height of his fame...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI")

ODOM: (As Sam Cooke) It's great to be at the Copacabana. How's everybody feeling tonight?

MONDELLO: ...To crickets and Malcolm X concerned about how his rift with the Nation of Islam will affect his family.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI")

JOAQUINA KALUKANGO: (As Betty X) Thank goodness you're safe.

KINGSLEY BEN-ADIR: (As Malcolm X) Where are the girls?

KALUKANGO: (As Betty X) I put them to bed.

BEN-ADIR: (As Malcolm X) No. I promised I'd be here in time to tuck them in.

MONDELLO: Now with Malcolm as their host, they're at a party with no booze, no snacks, no one else except the Nation of Islam guards at the door. Brown and Cooke especially were expecting something bigger.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI")

HODGE: (As Jim Brown) Well, this party is off to a hopping start.

ODOM: (As Sam Cooke) The diner downstairs is open all night. We could throw the shindig there if Malcolm would lighten the hell up.

GOREE: (As Cassius Clay) He's just looking out for me, Sam.

ODOM: (As Sam Cooke) He's a big boy, Cash.

MONDELLO: Regina King's feature film directing debut has her working with screenwriter Kemp Powers to open up his own stage play in clever ways. They recreate the hotel pool photo shoot for that famous image of Cassius Clay boxing underwater, for instance.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI")

LAWRENCE GILLIARD JR: (As Drew "Bundini" Brown) He can't even swim. That boy going to mess around and drown.

MONDELLO: But as a performer herself, King makes the film primarily an actors' showcase. Clay is the flashiest part, with actor Eli Goree letting us see both the champ's bravado and the nerves he's hiding about joining the Nation of Islam. Aldis Hodge smolders as Jim Brown, who's wearied of working for team owners and will soon parlay football fame into a Hollywood contract.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI")

HODGE: (As Jim Brown) We're all just gladiators, Cash, with our ruler sitting up there in his box giving us the thumbs up or the thumbs down. Well, I don't want no damn ruler.

MONDELLO: Leslie Odom Jr., late of Broadway's "Hamilton," is sinuous and smart as Sam Cooke, both when crooning love ballads and when defending his business decision to let the Rolling Stones cover Bobby Womack's "It's All Over Now" - Black capitalism at its finest, he says.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI")

ODOM: (As Sam Cooke) Because Bobby's the writer and my company owns the rights to the song, that means every time some white girl buys a copy of that single, she putting money into my pockets - our pockets.

MONDELLO: And British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir, who as Malcolm looks uncannily like a young Barack Obama, is crystal clear about the dangers he sees ahead.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI")

BEN-ADIR: (As Malcolm X) I figure I better start getting my life story documented in my own words while I can.

MONDELLO: I'm going to guess that night's conversations weren't quite so prescient or so on the nose about race and social justice. But it probably makes sense to grant "One Night In Miami" some artistic leeway as it links these icons to the world they helped make better and the struggle that goes on.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")

SAM COOKE: (Singing) There've been times that I thought I wouldn't last for long. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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