mountains

Of Mountains and Molehills: One Night in Miami

When Spike Lee’s film, Malcolm X, was released in 1992, I was teaching political science at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, Connecticut. To my knowledge I was the only Muslim and the only African American male professor on campus. There may have been others, however, if there were, I never heard of them. That being the case, I was occasionally approached by some of the young African American male students to discuss issues of import in the black community. At that time, Lee’s movie was one such issue.

The film was eagerly anticipated by those young men. This was evident in the proliferation of Malcolm X gear they were sporting: the hoodies, T-shirts, and baseball caps. When the movie was finally released, we rushed to see it. When we had an opportunity to discuss it, the general mood was one of disappointment. Questions such as the following were raised: “Why was so much time devoted to Malcolm’s gangster phase?” “Why was so little time devoted to the evolution of Malcolm’s ideas, especially his evolving Muslim, nationalist and revolutionary thought after he left the Nation of Islam (NOI)?” We could also mention here: “Why weren’t the roles of the many women who were instrumental in shaping Malcolm X examined in the film, especially his mother and his older half sister, Ella Collins?”

To Lee’s credit, although there was much more he could have explored in the film, especially considering its length, he tried to stick to the facts of Malcolm’s life. Sadly, this cannot be said of, One Night in Miami, Amazon Prime Video’s (APV) recent foray into the life of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, another Muslim icon from the 1960s; along with Sam Cooke and Jim Brown. That these monumental figures would come together to share a night in Miami, Florida, on the night of Ali’s stunning upset of Sonny Liston, is remarkable in and of itself. The way One Night in Miami treats the union, less so. This is especially true in terms of how the two iconic Muslims are portrayed. I will focus my analysis here on those two individuals, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, leaving a fuller analysis of the film to others.

To begin with, the movie is a fictional version of a play written by Kemp Powers. As Powers’ account is also fictional, the APV adaptation amounts to a double distortion of reality. That distortion would not be worthy of comment if it did not portray the Muslims, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay), in ways so antithetical to the traits that propelled them to such towering heights on both the American and global socio-political and cultural landscapes.

The reimagined Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali are not only misrepresented in, One Night in Miami, their character is distorted in ways that contradict the foundations of their unrivaled influence. For example, Malcolm X, whose courage and moral fortitude have inspired countless millions until this day, is portrayed as an insecure, paranoid pontificator who has done very little to change the conditions of the masses of black folks. The latter point is driven home in the imaginary exchange between Malcolm and Cooke, which culminates with Cooke walking out of the room after being excoriated by Malcolm for not doing more to uplift the masses of black folks with his music. In the course of the exchange, Cooke points out how well he is using the system for his financial advantage and to provide jobs and opportunities for others. He has a concrete plan to advance his people, while Malcolm only has words.

This argument, which never happened, is only believable to someone who has absolutely no familiarity with Malcolm’s life and work. Malcolm X may have been one of the greatest orators in American history, but he was far more than that. He was an organizer and a builder. He played a major role in establishing NOI temples up and down the Eastern seaboard of the United States. He was instrumental in founding and popularizing the NOI’s Newspaper, Muhammad Speaks. His brilliance was the major force in “branding” the NOI as a leading black organization. At the time of his death, he was in the process of building two organizations, Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of African American Unity, from scratch. The real Malcolm, an internationally renowned giant whose culminating action was galvanizing the “Third World” to support his case against the United States before the United Nations, comes off in the film as a man of many words but little action.

Malcolm’s imagined paranoia, indicated by his constantly looking over his shoulder, is reinforced by the NOI guards posted at his hotel door. In reality he was guarded by a single bodyguard that night, who happened to be an undercover police informant. Unless Malcolm was an infinitely better actor than Kingsley Ben-Adir, who played him in the film, the smiles and confidence he exuded during those days in Miami, could never have concealed the paranoia conveyed in the film. His insecurity, hinted at in his frequent affirmations of his own militancy, is highlighted when he is “psychoanalyzed” by Jim Brown about his blackness. Malcolm has no answer when Brown suggests that the reason the redhaired, “yellow” Malcolm is so passionate about the black struggle is because he is trying to prove his blackness, not because of his love and commitment to his people. The whole scene is absurd.

Leaving aside the fact that although Malcolm X was an African American of lighter complexion, he could not come close to “passing” for white. To suppose that he was insecure about his blackness is to assume that he did not grow up in a Garveyite home and was not surrounded by family members of various African complexions who supported and affirmed each other’s blackness and humanity. It is to assume that he was not mentored by black men both in the streets, prison and the NOI. As Ossie Davis stated in his moving eulogy: “Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood.” As such, Malcolm has inspired millions of black men to be better husbands, fathers, activists and refined human beings. The inspiration he provided others is sufficient testimony to the confidence Malcolm exuded in being black. As the Arabs say, “Someone lacking something cannot give it to others.”

As for Muhammad Ali, it is well known that he could be playful, however, even in his lightest moments, he is not the clown presented in the film. The film industry has a right to artistic license, but it does not have a license to lie. After training weeks for the Liston fight, spending an immeasurable amount of energy hyping the fight, and then spending six rounds focusing on not being killed by the angry and powerful Liston, while simultaneously pummeling him with every punch in the book, what would anyone other than the screenwriters of this film imagine Ali doing after such a grueling ordeal? After a few public appearances, falling asleep in Malcolm’s room from exhaustion and then leaving for the solidary comfort of his own bed. That is exactly what happened in real life. In, One Night in Miami, a hyperactive Ali is boyishly bouncing on the bed. This immature clowning dominates how Ali is portrayed in much of the film.

Most people might find such fiction excusable. Ali has been misrepresented in the past, so what we just mentioned is nothing new. There are two scenes, however, that are beyond the pale. The first involves Jim Brown and Ali taking a drink when Malcolm stepped out of the room, from a bottle of alcohol that Brown snuck into Malcolm’s room. Ali, who was never known as a drinker, reverenced Malcolm X. It boggles the mind to imagine that he would have taken a drink in his mentor’s room during the latter’s absence, or that he would have remained silent knowing that someone had snuck alcohol into the room in the first place. What would all of this say about Ali’s character, or Brown’s for that matter?

The second scene is when Malcolm reveals that he plans to leave the NOI and start his own Muslim organization. He suggests to Ali that it would be a boon were he to join him in the effort. Hearing this, Ali, accusing Malcolm of exploiting him, violently lunges at him, before being pulled away by Brown. Again, this is all imaginary dramatization with no basis in reality. Anyone who knew Ali knows that he would never raise his hand towards Malcolm, even after the strain that developed in their relationship. As in many other scenes, Ali is being flatly misrepresented.

Another way Ali is misrepresented is in his uncertainty about Islam, as presented in NOI teachings. In the film, Ali mentions that “passionate” is too strong a word to describe his commitment to the religion he has already accepted and at that point is fully committed to. Ali did not engage in a lukewarm embrace of the NOI that night in a Miami hotel room. At that point he had been studying with other members of the NOI, most importantly, “Captain Sam,” for over eighteen months and was completely sold on the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. We should further remember that Ali was willing to cancel the fight if Malcolm X was not allowed to attend the bout and to accompany him in the days leading up to it. A willingness to walk away from his long-sought opportunity to become the heavyweight champion of the world for the sake of his mentor is not something a dispassionate, unsure follower of his faith would do.

We could continue in this vein, however, the point of just how far the reimagining of the historic encounter misses the mark should be clear. What I wish to examine in the concluding part of this essay is one of the factors underlying the ability of the entertainment industry to so easily perpetrate such a fraud. Namely, the dominant intellectual culture of our country, activist postmodernism (referred to hereafter as postmodernism). One of the features of postmodernism is that it subordinates truth to its ideological imperatives. One of those imperatives is the deconstruction of iconic figures and heroes in order to “humanize” them, in the process robbing them of a “larger than life” stature. In this leveling, every prince becomes and pauper, every pauper a prince.

This process is illustrated in Manning Marable’s voluminous biography of Malcolm X. Among the ways Marable attempts to “humanize” Malcolm is by accusing him of homosexual “activity.” In a meticulously researched book containing almost five hundred footnotes, Marable can find no source to confirm Malcolm’s “homosexuality.” That being the case, he imagines that when Malcolm describes homosexual encounters between a fellow thug, Rudy, and an older white man, Malcolm is actually talking about himself. His second piece of “evidence” supporting this baseless charge is his unethical distortion of a quote by Rodnell Collins, the son of Malcolm’s half-sister, Ella Collins, to make it appear that Collins is stating that during his gangster days Malcolm engaged in homosexual acts. This is actually what Marable is saying, after ending his brief quote of Collins.

Marable’s book, Powers’ play and Regina King’s film are rooted in the postmodern approach to truth. In the postmodern scheme, truth is relative to the cultural factors involved in its production and is not necessarily something that corresponds to reality. By introducing subjectivity into what constitutes truth, the postmodernists can subjugate it to the dictates of ideology or the whims of personal desire. On this basis, any truth can be deconstructed or stripped of its original meaning and context and then randomly reconstructed. This is exactly what happens in, One Night in Miami.

Objective reality would have been too boring to be the basis of a successful play, so Powers deconstructed that boring reality and reimagined it according to his whims. Although his play is far more reverent of the status of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali than the APV film, Powers opens the door for the kinds of abuses I describe above. In his words:

…the foursome’s fame threatened to weigh down the whole play. It didn’t really begin to sing until I moved away from all of the iconography and deconstructed who these guys were as men, and how that could aid (or taint) a friendship. Suddenly, they became relatable (https://thisstage.la/2013/one-night-in-miami).

In other words, Powers was not interested in portraying these men as they were, or the night as it was, he was interested in portraying them as he desired in order to get his play to “sing.” Hence, his deconstruction of reality, his abandonment of truth.

Some will object to my criticism, arguing that the play and the subsequent film are constructive in that they help to convey the vulnerabilities of these men, or they show the humanity of these iconic figures, or they illustrate the various ways blackness can be expressed and that these benefits justify the deconstruction that facilitates them. They might add that both the play and the film are works of historical fiction and the genre is meant to explore aspects of personalities and events that life itself leaves unexamined.

Despite its lofty intentions, historical fiction has always had its intense critics, primarily serious historians. One of those criticisms is that an unsuspecting public can become confused about the meaning and significance of major historical figures or events when they are distorted beyond recognition. This is illustrated by the fierce backlash Gore Vidal’s book, Lincoln: A Novel, evoked. Among other things, Vidal portrayed Lincoln’s wife as a syphilitic lunatic and Lincoln himself as a racist. While some may view such reimagining as entertainment, others view it as deception with potentially damaging implications.

As Muslims, we should have specific concerns that transcend those of critics who are members of other communities. For example, it is forbidden for us to lie to entertain or amuse people. Not even the Prophet’s (peace and blessings of Allah upon him) jokes involved untruths or distortions of reality. Furthermore, every human, and especially Muslims, have God-giving sanctities that we are bound to respect. The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah upon him) stated: “Every Muslim is inviolable to his fellow Muslim: his life, property and honor (Muslim, 2564).” These sanctities were emphasized by the Prophet (peace and blessings of God upon him) in his farewell address. Distorting a person’s words or deeds, especially in harmful ways, is described by God as sinful. We read in the Qur’an: “Surely those who harm believing men and women with what they have not done bear the burden of slander and a grave sin (33:58).”

This film, with all of its reimagining, does a grave injustice to Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali by distorting the truth of that night in Miami in ways incompatible with who they were as men and what they represent to their people. This flows from the approach to truth undergirding, One Night in Miami. It is an approach that promises to leave us with no one to look up to as it attempts to tear down our heroic figures. Its promise, however, is a false one because iconic figures do not elevate themselves, they are elevated by God, and one whom God has elevated can never be brought low by humans.

I would argue, unequivocally, that God elevated Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. A play, a film, a book can cast them in any light it chooses, but history testifies to the fact that these men have moved multitudes and inspired millions. Of course, like all of us they were flawed human beings, perfection after all is the sole preserve of God, but unlike most of us they were and are so much more. They are mountains whose majesty touches our souls, and no amount of deconstruction and reimaging will ever reduce them to molehills.

– Imam Zaid Shakir
February 26, 2021

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