Based on a true story, King’s debut film opens with what could be called prologues for its quartet of characters. We see Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) being lauded and praised by an old white friend (Beau Bridges), who then refuses to let him into his home. He can be the most popular athlete in the world, but the color of his skin still means he’s not coming through the front door. We see Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) closer to the end of his career than its peak, but still able to afford a fancy room at the Fontainebleau. Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) seems to have a lot on his mind, especially a pending announcement about his joining the Nation of Islam, but he has to concentrate on a fight in Miami tonight first. Finally, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) is struggling with his role given recent revelations about and conflicts with Elijah Muhammad.
All four men end up in a motel room in Miami after Clay wins his fight, and that’s where most of the drama unfolds. They talk about what to do that night, their personalities vibrantly bouncing off one another, and they go to the roof to watch the fireworks. The conversations ebb and flow, moving into issues of faith, racism, and celebrity. Jim Brown reveals he’s considering retiring to focus on acting, Clay speaks of joining The Nation, etc. There’s a sense that these four men are all at essential points in their lives, moments in which they would make major decisions that would impact pop culture, politics, sports, and race relations in ways they couldn’t even imagine. And yet Powers’ script is also playful and, most importantly, deeply human. These guys aren’t mouthpieces; they’re believable in ways historical figures aren’t often allowed to be in film. We learn more about these four guys sharing screen time than 90% of biopics that focus on only one famous story.
One of the reasons for that is King’s notable gift with directing performance. All four men could accurately be called great, each finding beautifully nuanced beats in which the walls of public perception around this quartet tumble down. Goree finds the playfulness in Clay, especially given how young he was on this particular night. It’s easy to forget how much was on his shoulders at such a young age. Odom may be one of the only people alive with a voice that can compete with Sam Cooke, but he digs deeper than a singing impression to create a famous man’s inner conflict. Hodge captures Brown’s look-you-in-the-eyes confidence, doing a lot with I think the least amount of actual dialogue. And then there’s Kingsley Ben-Adir, who is simply stunning, tearing down the confident artifice of Malcolm X and playing his uncertainty and humanity in ways we haven’t seen before. It’s one of the best performances of 2020.