Minor spoilers ahead.
Regina King’s directorial debut, One Night in Miami, focuses on real-life heroes in a fictional story. Adapted from the play by Kemp Powers, it follows boxer Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali), civil rights leader Malcolm X, NFL star Jim Brown, and singer Sam Cooke, all in a motel room after Clay wins the title of heavyweight champion of the world. But instead of ringing in the victory with a big party, the quartet have a laid-back night in, falling into deep conversations and debates about race, faith, freedom, and what true equality really means.
These four men did meet.
The historic specifics of the night are unclear, but such a gathering did occur. Powers came across an account of that fateful meeting while researching the intersection of sports and the civil rights movement, and was ultimately inspired to write the play. “The focus was Muhammad Ali and it mentioned that specific night and the fact that when Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston, he went back to Malcolm X’s hotel room with Sam Cooke and Jim Brown,” he told Esquire UK. “The next morning he announced that he was a member of The Nation of Islam to the press.”
On February 25, 1964, the legends witnessed 22-year-old Clay (Eli Goree) fight Sonny Liston. Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), already close friends with the boxer, and Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) were in the audience; Brown (Aldis Hodge) was ringside providing sports commentary, according to Slate. There is record that Malcolm X stayed at The Hampton House Motel that night, per the outlet, and that’s where he and his contemporaries spent the evening.
Yes, there was ice cream involved.
Powers added, “Little details of the night show up in various biographies, one little fact that’s true is that all they had was vanilla ice cream.” (Surely enough, the group indulges in a few scoops throughout the film.) However, the written accounts of that night aren’t always consistent. “Often you get details on the night that don’t align with one another which makes me feel even better about this fictionalized conversation that takes place,” he said.
Biography pointed out some of the accounts: The book Jim Brown: Last Man Standing reveals that the titular running back wanted to attend a real after-party, but Clay persuaded him otherwise. In Ali: A Life, the newly minted champ and Malcolm X celebrate the win with ice cream at a soda fountain. There appears to be photo evidence of this dessert run, featuring Malcolm X with a camera in hand, photographing Clay, just as he does in the film. However, this scene comes later in the night in Regina King’s version of events.
All four men ended up at Malcolm X’s room at the motel together, per Biography, along with Clay’s biographer, Howard Bingham, and other Nation of Islam members. The book Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke also mentions the evening.
The events in the epilogue aren't entirely chronological.
The next morning, Clay is consecrated by Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, who declares the champion’s new name as Muhammad Ali. According to History, that ceremony actually occurred the following month, on March 6. Clay also went by the name Cassius X before then.
Malcolm X, his wife Betty X, and their children flee after their home is firebombed by attackers. This did happen to his home in Queens, but a year later, in February 1965, according to a Daily News report at the time. He was assassinated days after. In his final scenes in One Night in Miami, Malcolm X is seen with a manuscript for his famous autobiography, as told to author Alex Haley. The book was published months after his death.
Sam Cooke, moved by his conversation with Malcolm X about using his platform to address racial injustice, performs “A Change Is Gonna Come” for the first time, on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. But that isn’t historically accurate. In real life, Cooke recorded the song in late January 1964 and performed it on The Tonight Show a week later (so before Clay’s fight), according to Oxford University Press.
Brown also announces that he’s quitting the NFL to pursue his movie career. That did happen, but two years later, in 1966, according to Sports Illustrated. Brown announced his retirement from the NFL on the set of The Dirty Dozen, still in costume. He also went on to launch the Black Economic Union to support Black entrepreneurs.
One Night in Miami is now streaming on Prime Video.
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