Review: ‘Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World,’ starring Khris Davis, Jasmine Mathews, John Magaro, Sullivan Jones, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Sonja Sohn and Forest Whitaker

April 27, 2023

by Carla Hay

Khris Davis and Sullivan Jones in “Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World” (Photo by Alan Markfield/Affirm Films)

“Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World”

Directed by George Tillman Jr.

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the world, from the 1950s to the 1990s, the dramatic film “Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World” (based on a true events) features an African American and white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: George Foreman becomes a world-famous champion boxer, but he faced many challenges before, during, and after his fame—including poverty, a failed marriage, accusations of being a traitor to African Americans, bad business decisions, and a crisis of religious faith. 

Culture Audience: “Big George Foreman” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Foreman, boxing and sports biopics, but what this movie has to offer is often mediocre and too mushy for a story that needed to be grittier.

Forest Whitaker and Khris Davis in “Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World” (Photo by Alan Markfield/Affirm Films)

The first clue that “Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World” is going to be hokey and boring is the movie’s unnecessarily long title. This corny and awkward biopic of boxing champ George Foreman makes his unusual life look dreadfully formulaic. The entire movie is like a limp punching bag filled with nothing but hot air. Major, life-changing moments in Foreman’s life are depicted in very shallow ways, like boxes that need to be checked off in a “to do” list of drab celebrity biopics.

Directed by George Tillman Jr., “Big George Foreman” is Tillman’s movie directorial follow-up to the 2018 drama “The Hate U Give.” A vitally important and searing look at the aftermath of police brutality against black people, “The Hate U Give” is a movie that will remain relevant for years to come. “Big George Foreman” is a movie that was already made with stale and old-fashioned clichés, making it irrelevant except to people who like stale and old-fashioned celebrity biopics. Tillman co-wrote the “Big George Foreman” screenplay with Frank Baldwin, whose only previous feature-film credit is the 2019 forgettable action flick “Cold Pursuit,” starring Liam Neeson.

“Big George Foreman” is told mostly in chronological order and has frequent voiceover narration from the character of George speaking in hindsight. There are occasional flashbacks. For the purposes of this review, the real people are referred to by their last names, while the characters in the movie are referred to by their first names.

Unfortunately, this drama is plagued with cringeworthy acting from many of the cast members, most of whom don’t have realistic chemistry with each other. Khris Davis, who has the role of the adult George, doesn’t really physically look like the real Foreman. And that’s a disappointing distraction when Davis’ acting is mediocre at best.

Foreman (who was born in 1949, in Marshall, Texas) and his six siblings were raised by mother Nancy Foreman and stepfather J.D. Foreman. However, the movie makes it look like there was no father figure in George’s life. Nancy (played by Sonja Sohn) is depicted as a single mother working as a waitress in a diner and raising her kids in poverty in Houston’s tough 5th Ward area.

The movie portrays George’s sister Mary as the sibling with whom he had the closest emotional bond. Mary is played by Jordan Yarborough as a teenager and by Erica Tazel as an adult. George says in a voiceover about Mary: “She always saw the good in me. I loved her for that.”

But some of the movie’s intended heartfelt emotions are undercut by cheesy lines of dialogue. In a dining-room scene with a pre-teen George (played by Kei Rawlins) at about 11 or 12 years old, Nancy is trying not to look upset in front of the kids because she doesn’t have enough food to give them all a proper meal. George says, “I’m so hungry, I could eat this table.”

At school, young George is much bigger and taller than his classmates. He is bullied and discriminated against because everyone knows he comes from a poor family. Even a schoolteacher shows this prejudice: In a scene that takes place in a classroom, George has his hand raised to answer a question from the teacher. She looks at George’s worn-out shoes and decides to pass over George and choose a well-dressed student named Jalen Burke (played by Makario Glenn) to answer the question instead.

Later, in the schoolyard, Jalen bullies George by humiliating him about George living in poverty. Jalen sneers to anyone who’ll listen that George should change his last name from Foreman to Poorman. This insult infuriates George, who punches Jalen so hard, Jalen falls to the ground. Several times throughout the movie, it’s mentioned that George has an anger management problem.

As a teenager, George (played by Austin David Jones) almost gets arrested for mugging an undercover police officer. He narrowly escapes arrest by hiding in a sewage dump area and smearing mud all over his face, to throw off his scent from police dog nearby. This close call is enough to motivate him to join Job Corps when he hears that it’s a program where enrollees get free lodging and job training. (The movie doesn’t mention that in real life, Foreman dropped out of school at 15 years old.)

George enrolling in Job Corps is a decision that will change his life. George tells his mother about Job Corps, which would require him to move to Pleasanton, California. Nancy wants George to turn his life around from the crimes he’s been committing, so she encourages him to join Job Corps. She advises, “Do it right. Don’t come running back home because you miss me. Finish what you started.”

At the Job Corps facilities, George and several other men have to sleep in one large room with separate beds. One of the other Job Corps enrollees is a guy named Desmond, nicknamed Des (played by John Magaro), who’s much older than George, probably by 10 to 15 years. Desmond is vague about why he’s enrolled with Job Corps, but he’s an obvious alcoholic, since he’s frequently shown in the movie taking swigs from flasks of alcohol.

George is standoffish to Desmond at first when Desmond tries to befriend him. George also loses his temper when Desmond plays music on a turntable while George is trying to study. But one day, the ice between them is broken when they sit at the same table in a cafeteria.

Desmond tells George that the cafeteria has more brownies than beans because Desmond told Job Corp management that more money could be saved if brownies were bought instead of beans. Since George likes brownies, he has newfound respect for Desmond, who brags that he’s good with numbers. Later, when George becomes a successful boxer, he asks Desmond (who still has a drinking problem) to be his “money man.” And you can easily predict how that business partnership will work out.

While enrolled in Job Corps, George nearly gets expelled for violent fighting. He begs a Job Corps gym manager named Doc Broadus (played by Forest Whitaker) to let him stay in Job Corps. Doc gives George one last chance to redeem himself. Doc tells George that George should learn to channel his anger into boxing. Doc, a former boxer and a U.S. Air Force veteran, volunteers to train George. And so begins George’s journey to boxing greatness.

One person who isn’t happy to hear about George taking up boxing is his mother Nancy. When George calls her to tell her about it, she expresses worry and concern for his safety and health. However, what looks phony about this poorly written scene is that Nancy is surprised when George tells her that boxing is considered a sport. Are we supposed to believe that Nancy is that ignorant? Are we supposed to believe that she’s never heard of professional boxing? Apparently so, because when George tells her about it, she acts like she never heard of it.

It doesn’t take long for George to set big goals for himself. He tells a skeptical Doc that he wants to be in the 1968 Olympics, which is a goal that 19-year-old George accomplishes after being in boxing training for one year. And he wins the Olympic gold medal that year in the heavyweight division. George also achieves other goals that he set for himself, including defeating Joe Frazier (played by Carlos Takam), and eventually becoming a world heavyweight champion. During his rise to the top, George has a longtime professional relationship with trainer Archie Moore (played by Lawrence Gilliard Jr.), who was also a champion boxer in his heyday.

But you know a George Foreman biopic is bad when Muhammad Ali upstages George every time Muhammad is seen in the movie. Sullivan Jones has the role of Ali, who was Foreman’s biggest boxing rival for years. Jones has more physical resemblance to Ali than Davis has to Foreman, but a physical resemblance shouldn’t be the most important thing about a performance of a real person. What makes Jones’ performance as Ali so watchable (and one of the few highlights of the movie) is that he skillfully captures the voice cadence and cocky charisma of the real Ali.

Unfortunately, Davis’ portrayal of Foreman is very generic. For much of the movie, the character of George is a negative stereotype of an uneducated, angry black man who cheats on his wife. It isn’t until the last third of the film when there’s some spark to Foreman’s personality. He goes through a religious awakening and figures out that there could be more that he could be doing with his life than beating up men for a living.

But even when George shows a livelier side to himself than being a boxing brute, he just seems to be imitating Muhammad. George’s wisecracking in interviews in the latter part of the movie looks like it’s straight out of the Muhammad Ali media playbook. George’s religious awakening (he became a born-again Christian and a preacher) also pales in comparison to the real Ali, who converted from Christianity to Islam and became an outspoken activist as a result.

Meanwhile, as depicted in the movie, Foreman got some backlash from the African American community for carrying the American flag during his victory walk at the 1968 Olympics, where he won the gold medal in heavyweight boxing. That’s because there was a lot of civil unrest over how the American government was treating African Americans, and right-wingers were using the American flag as a symbol of wanting to keep government policies that violated civil rights. In “Big George Foreman,” George is seen brooding about being labeled as a “sellout” to his race. In response to this criticism, George opens community centers that do outreach to underprivileged people.

“Big George Foreman” does adequate recreations of some of Foreman’s most famous boxing matches, include his 1973 battle with Frazier that resulted in Foreman’s first world heavyweight championship title. Also recreated in the movie are the famous Rumble in the Jungle match in 1974 against Ali; the 1977 fight against Jimmy Young (played by David Jite); the 1987 comeback fight against Steve Zouski (played by Barry Hanley); the 1991 world heavyweight title match against Evander Holyfield in 1991; and the 1994 world heavyweight title match against Michael Moorer (played by Charles Brewer Jr.), which was probably the most “Foreman as the underdog” fight of Foreman’s career.

Ali and Foreman each had multiple failed marriages that ended in divorce. The 2001 biopic “Ali” (directed by Michael Mann and starring Will Smith in the Oscar-nominated title role) depicted all four of Ali’s marriages. In real life, Foreman has been married five times. “Big George Foreman” only depicts his first marriage and fifth marriage. In addition, since the movie ends in the 1990s, not all of Foreman’s 12 children are mentioned in the movie.

The movie shows George meeting his first wife Paula (played by Shein Mompremier) at the Oakland Airport in California, after he’s famous enough to be on the cover of magazines. She’s assertive and independent. When he tries to ask for her phone number, she teases him, “Your footwork is better than your pickup game.” (In real life, Foreman’s first wife was named Adrienne. They were married from 1971 to 1974.)

The marriage of George and Paula falls apart because of his chronic infidelity. The movie makes it look like all of George’s mistresses were homewrecking temptresses who aggressively pursued him. Although there’s a scene in the movie where an apologetic George expresses regrets about how he ruined his marriage to Paula by cheating on her, it’s in the context of how it’s mainly hurting him because he’s in turmoil over custody and visitation of the children he had with Paula.

George meets his fifth and current wife Mary Joan (played by Jasmine Mathews) under very different circumstances than how he met Paula. His boxing career is on the decline, and she’s wary of his romantic pursuit of her because she knows he has reputation for being a cheater. Mary Joan is also very religious. She wants George to retire from boxing if they get married. As in real life, the movie shows that Mary Joan and George got married in 1985.

So much of “Big George Foreman” just goes through the motions of the over-used story arc structure of celebrity biopics: First there’s the rise of the celebrity, then there’s the fall, and then there’s the comeback. It’s just all done in such a perfunctory way in this movie, it looks like bland chapters in a watered-down book, rather than a true cinematic storytelling experience that is revelatory and creative.

The film editing for “Big George Foreman” is sometimes choppy. In one scene that takes place in 1977, George has collapsed after his fight with Young in Puerto Rico. His colleagues tell George that they thought he was dead. George replies, “I was. Jesus Christ is alive in me.” And the next scene cuts to George being a preacher in 1978. There’s no depiction of him going through the physical recovery of this near-death collapse.

Whitaker turns in a fairly good performance as boxing trainer Doc, but Whitaker is really not doing anything new or exciting in “Big George Foreman,” because he’s played “tough but tender” mentors before in many other on-screen roles. The character of Desmond is oddly placed. He’s in several scenes in George’s rise to the top. But then, Desmond is not seen or mentioned for a long stretch of the movie, until Desmond makes an appearance for one of the movie’s most melodramatic sequences that takes place in the 1980s.

One of the most incongruous things about “Big George Foreman” is that it makes a big deal out of showing that George’s mother Nancy and George’s fifth wife Mary Jane were opposed to George’s boxing, out of concerns for his safety and health. However, when George is on the comeback trail in his 40s, there’s a big disconnect in this narrative: Nancy and Mary Jane are shown enthusiastically cheering on George at a time in his life when his health was even more at risk as a professional boxer, because of his age and overweight physique. The movie gives no explanation for this drastic change in attitude from Nancy and Mary Jane.

“Big George Foreman” has some attempts at comedy that look like ideas that were rejected from a second-rate sitcom. Even the story of the George Foreman grill business is rushed through the movie and depicted as a fluke idea that Foreman did not predict would become the success that it became. “Big George Foreman” takes a larger-than-life story and shrinks it into something that ends up becoming a basic “by the numbers” biopic with too much unrealistic sappiness and not enough authentic grit.

Affirm Films will release “Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World” in U.S. cinemas on April 28, 2023.

Review: ‘My Father Muhammad Ali,’ starring Muhammad Ali Jr.

March 26, 2023

by Carla Hay

Muhammad Ali Jr. in “My Father Muhammad Ali” (Photo courtesy of VMI Worldwide)

“My Father Muhammad Ali”

Directed by Chad A. Verdi and Tom DeNucci

Culture Representation: Taking place in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and California, the documentary film “My Father Muhammad Ali” features a group of African American and white people discussing Muhammad Ali Jr. and the legacy of his father, boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

Culture Clash: Muhammad Ali Jr. struggles with living in the shadow of his father’s fame, while also trying to cash in on that fame and dealing with his own personal problems, such as homelessness and drug addiction.

Culture Audience: “My Father Muhammad Ali” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Muhammad Ali, but this misleading documentary is really just a self-indulgent pity party for his namesake son.

Muhammad Ali Jr. and Richard Blum in “My Father Muhammad Ali” (Photo courtesy of VMI Worldwide)

“My Father Muhammad Ali” is one of the most pathetic “cash grab using a celebrity name” documentaries you could ever see. It’s poorly edited rambling from Muhammad Ali Jr. feeling sorry for himself, because of this troubled son’s personal problems. Don’t expect this “bait and switch” documentary to have any real insight into who boxing legend Muhammad Ali was as a person. (Muhammad Ali Sr. died of Parkinson’s disease in 2016, at the age of 74.) Most of what you’ll see in “My Father Muhammad Ali” is Muhammad Ali Jr. complaining about his life and making pleas and pitches to donate to his sketchy-looking “non-profit foundation” Muhammad Ali Legacy Continues. It’s like watching a really long and shoddily made infomercial.

Directed by Chad A. Verdi and Tom DeNucci (who should be ashamed of themselves for making this sorry excuse for a documentary), “My Father Muhammad Ali” begins with the only real anecdote that Muhammad Ali Jr. (who was born on May 14, 1972) shares about his father in this movie. Muhammad Jr. tells a story that he says took place in August 1984, when he was on a road trip with his father, who was driving the car. Muhammad Jr. says that during this road trip, they were headed to a Travelodge motel. They stopped at a gas station, and his father accidentally left him behind at the gas station.

Muhammad Jr. says that he called Muhammad Sr.’s girlfriend at the time, Yolanda “Lonnie” Williams (who would become Muhammad Sr.’s fourth and last wife, when they married in 1986), to pick him up at the gas station, but she was too busy and couldn’t go. Eventually, someone got in touch with Muhammad Sr., and he came back to the gas station to pick up his son. Muhammad Sr.’s explanation for leaving his son at the gas station was that he forgot that someone else was in the car with him on this road trip. Muhammad Jr. then says in the documentary: “I didn’t realize Parkinson’s disease was setting in at the time.”

“My Father Muhammad Ali” gives a very truncated version of Muhammad Jr.’s dysfunctional life. He describes being named after father as being both a blessing and a curse. He says his parents traveled a lot and were too busy to raise him, so he was mainly raised by his mother’s parents. His mother Khalilah Ali (formerly known as Belinda Boyd) was Muhammad Sr.’s second wife. They were married from 1967 to 1977. Muhammad Jr. says he gets about $1,000 a month from his father’s estate. The movie also acknowledges that Muhammad Jr. has sold his story to tabloids, by showing clips of some of these tabloid articles.

Muhammad Jr. openly admits in this documentary that he’s homeless and struggling with drug addiction, specifically crack cocaine. His family life is also a mess. He had a nasty breakup with his now-ex-wife (who refused to participate in the documentary), and was a deadbeat dad for years to his daughter Saliah Ali, who grew up in foster care and in homeless shelters. In the beginning of the documentary, Muhammad Jr. is hopeful that he will reunite with his wife, whom he married in 2005, but he is soundly rejected when he tries to make this marital reunion happen. He’s also served with divorce papers on camera.

However, Saliah is open to mending her family relationship with him. Saliah is interviewed in the documentary and talks about the emotional pain of having a drug-addicted, absentee father. Muhammad Jr. is remorseful and is shown trying to reconnect with Saliah and attempting to make up for all the lost time that they were estranged from each other.

At one point in the movie, Muhammad Jr. goes back to the property that houses the mansion where the Ali family used to live in California. The current owners of the mansion wouldn’t let the documentary filmmakers inside, so the filming took place outside a front gate on the property. Muhammad then tells some innocuous stories about remembering how his father liked to exercise outdoors on this property.

Anyone who thinks that information is fascinating might be suckered into donating to Muhammad Jr.’s “non-profit foundation,” which he says is for spreading anti-bullying messages and to help teach self-defense boxing to bullied young people. However, the documentary doesn’t actually show any donations to the foundation being used for that purpose. After a while, viewers will wonder if this documentary’s filmmakers ever questioned how legitimate this “non-profit foundation” really is, or if the filmmakers just didn’t care, because they’re using the Muhammad Ali name to try to make money too.

The documentary shows Muhammad Jr. going to Fighter’s Heaven in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, where Muhammad Sr. famously trained in his youth. Muhammad Jr. constantly drops his father’s name when he meets some fans of his father at Fighter’s Heaven. A Fighter’s Heaven volunteer named Joseph Bassio gushes about the Fighter’s Heaven connection to Muhammad Sr.: “This is kind of like the ground Christ walked on.”

One of the most cringeworthy aspects of the documentary is the domineering presence of Richard Blum, who is often by Muhammad Jr.’s side. Muhammad Jr. describes Blum as his best friend, roommate and business partner. Blum says he’s a retired New York City police officer. At the time this documentary was made, Blum and Muhammad Jr. were living together in the same motel room.

This “partnership” definitely doesn’t look equal, because it’s obvious that Blum has taken the “boss” position for all aspects of a “non-profit foundation” named after Muhammad Ali. Throughout the documentary, Blum coaches/orders Muhammad Jr. on what to say to the media, when it comes to this “non-profit foundation.” Viewers will get the impression that Blum has decided that he will handle all the financial details. Blum doesn’t show any proof that he’s qualified for having this leadership role.

This documentary is so poorly made, the filmmakers never question Blum on why he’s living in a motel with another homeless person and presenting himself as the leader of a questionable “non-profit foundation” as a source of income. Isn’t a retired cop supposed to get a pension, if the cop left the police force in good standing? In the documentary, Blum is vague or evasive about how much money this “non-profit foundation” has actually raised.

And it seems like a lot of people aren’t buying what Blum and Muhammad Jr. are selling. The documentary shows Blum and Muhammad Jr. holding a press conference at Fighter’s Heaven to talk about their “non-profit foundation.” Only one reporter and one photographer show up for this press conference. As usual, Blum tells Muhammad Jr. what to say, or he answers questions for Muhammad Jr.

Other awkward-looking parts of the documentary are the movie’s interviews with Dr. Monica O’Neal, a Harvard-trained clinical psychologist. She’s tasked with giving a psychologist perspective of Muhammad Jr., even though he’s not her patient/client. And later, O’Neal gives a therapy session to Muhammad Jr., who is emotionally guarded and never looks comfortable in this session.

O’Neal has this assessment of the super-close relationship that Muhammad Jr. and Blum have: “It seems like Richard has come into his life and is always trying to support him. He doesn’t really question him. He doesn’t really judge him.” Still, O’Neal has this observation about the relationship: “Something about it feels unclear.”

Family members interviewed in the documentary offer no real insight into Muhammad Sr., and instead give generic answers when talking about Muhammad Jr. and his problems. Rahman Ali, who is Muhammad Sr.’s younger brother, comments that Muhammad Jr. is “Sweet, just like his father.” And when asked to comment on the rough patch in Muhammad Jr.’s life, Rahman curtly says, “It’s none of my business.”

Muhammad Jr.’s mother Khalilah is also evasive in giving details about him and her role in his childhood. She says that her mother, who helped raise Muhammad Jr., didn’t tell her about Muhammad Jr.’s problems that he had as a child. Khalilah will only say this about Muhammad Jr. being raised by her parents: “I probably could’ve helped them with it better.”

One of the few high points of the documentary are heartfelt comments from Dr. Larry Baran (who was a teacher of Muhammad Jr. at Rosewood-Flossmoor Community High School in Flossmoor, Illinois) and his daughter Heidi Baran Splinter, who was Muhammad Jr.’s schoolmate friend. They share fond memories about Muhammad Jr. becoming like a part of their family. Muhammad Jr. is also shown reuniting with Baran Splinter for a friendly conversation. Dr. Baran was battling cancer when he was interviewed in this documentary, and he passed away in 2020.

“My Father Muhammad Ali” serves no other purpose but to be a public-relations showcase for Muhammad Jr. to rehabilitate his image and beg for money for his “non-profit foundation.” However, the intended purpose sadly backfires, because so much of the movie shows a broken man who is desperately trying to use his father’s name as a way to get money for himself. The documentary filmmakers are part of this exploitation too.

Muhammad Ali Sr. was by no means a perfect person, but he showed the world how to rise to greatness through hard work and self-respect. Unfortunately, this very misguided documentary shows that Muhammad Jr. has not yet learned that lesson. Money handouts aren’t going to make him happy. Hopefully, he’ll get some real help for his problems.

VMI Worldwide released “My Father Muhammad Ali” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on January 13, 2023.

Review: ‘One Night in Miami…,’ starring Leslie Odom Jr., Aldis Hodge, Kingsley Ben-Adir and Eli Goree

January 15, 2021

by Carla Hay

Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Aldis Hodge and Leslie Odom Jr. in “One Night in Miami” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“One Night in Miami…”

Directed by Regina King

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Miami on February 25, 1964, the dramatic film “One Night in Miami…” has a predominantly African American cast (with some white people) portraying celebrities, the middle-class and the working class.

Culture Clash: A social gathering of Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, Malcolm X and Jim Brown leads to ego conflicts and differing opinions on race relations.

Culture Audience: “One Night in Miami…” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a dramatic interpretation of what it would be like for four of the biggest African American heroes of the 1960s to spend time together as friends and sometimes adversaries.

Kingsley Ben-Adir (with camera), Aldis Hodge (in brown tie), Eli Goree (in tuxedo) and Leslie Odom Jr. (raising glass) in “One Night in Miami” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

It’s always tricky to do an entire story about hypothetical conversations between famous people who are well-respected and admired. If handled incorrectly, this portrayal could be considered very insincere or offensive. Imagine doing an entire story about four African American celebrities who, in their own different ways, weren’t just famous but were also inspirations to millions of people. And then you put all of four of them together (Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, Malcolm X and Jim Brown) and have them hang out as if they’re old friends.

It happened in real life one night in Miami in 1964, but this story imagines what these four famous men talked about when they spent time together that night. The actors portraying these four friends are Eli Goree as Ali (then known as Cassius Clay), Leslie Odom Jr. as Cooke, Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X (whose real name was Malcolm Little) and Aldis Hodge as Brown. “One Night in Miami…,” the feature-film directorial debut of Oscar-winning actress Regina King, mostly succeeds in depicting this compelling story, but it takes a while to get there, since the second half of the movie is much better than the first half.

The movie is based on the play “One Night in Miami…,” which was written by Kemp Powers, who also wrote the movie’s screenplay. In many ways, the movie still looks like a play, since the second (and more intense) half of the film is mostly set in a hotel. However, the cinematic version of this story does a very good job of bringing a broader scope of locations that can’t be done in a stage play.

The audience is briefly taken into the lives of each of the four central characters to get a glimpse of what they’re like in public before their private selves are revealed later in ways that leave an impact on the characters as well as the audience. It’s a movie where the social cancer of racism is never far from the story, and it’s felt, seen and heard in various ways throughout the movie. “One Night in Miami…” skillfully shows the uncomfortable reality that how to deal with racism can divide African Americans and other people who are targets of racism, because the reality is that not everyone agrees with what it means to have “black power” and how to use it.

The beginning of the movie is essentially a montage of scenes showing why each man is famous and how their race impacts their life’s work. The boastful and charismatic boxing champ known as Cassius Clay (who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali after he became a Muslim) is shown in 1963 at a boxing match at London’s Wembley Stadium, where he soundly defeats his opponent Henry “The Hammer” Cooper. However triumphant this victory is for Cassius, it’s still shown in the movie that white people are the ones who control boxing and make the most money from it, while the boxers are just pawns in the game.

R&B singer Sam Cooke is shown on stage at the Copacabana nightclub in New York City, where he’s getting a chilly reception from an all-white audience who don’t seem to want a black person to be entertaining them. Some of the audience members leave in disgust while Sam is on stage. Sam performs the Debbie Reynolds song “Tammy” to try to appeal to the crowd, but deep down, he’s fuming at being booked at a place filled with racists.

Backstage in the dressing room after the show, Sam’s white manager tells him, “Boy, you really did bomb tonight, Sam.” Sam explodes in anger and yells, “Have you ever made a million dollars singing? Well, I have! So, until you do, keep your fucking mouth shut!” One of Sam’s backup musicians witnessing this tantrum then says somewhat jokingly about the manager’s comment: “He ain’t wrong though.” Later in the movie, there are cameos from singer Jackie Wilson (played by Jeremy Pope), “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson (played by Christopher Gorham) and “Tonight Show” sidekick Ed McMahon (played by Alan Wells) in the depiction of Sam’s life.

Cleveland Browns star Jim Brown is shown visiting a wealthy football benefactor named Mr. Carlton (played by Beau Bridges) at Carlton’s mansion on St. Simon’s Island in Georgia. The two men chat amiably on the mansion’s front porch, while Mr. Carlton’s star-struck daughter Emily (played by Emily Bridges) gushes over Jim, as if she can’t believe her luck that this major NFL star is at her home. Mr. Carlton tells Jim that if he never needs anything, don’t hesitate to ask. As Jim starts to follow Mr. Carlton into the house, Mr. Carlton turns to him with a smile and says to Jim that he can’t come in because black people (he uses the “n” word) aren’t allowed in his house.

Malcolm X’s fiery brand of racial ideology made him controversial in the U.S. civil rights movement because of his belief that all white people are the “enemy.” In the beginning of the movie, he’s shown coming home late and telling his wife Betty (played by Joaquina Kalukango) some news that he’s not happy about at all: Louis Farrakhan, a prominent influencer in the Nation of Islam who was likely to become the group’s leader, did not approve Malcolm’s request to leave the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad (played by Jerome Wilson), who was the Nation of Islam’s leader at the time, was like a mentor to Malcolm, who felt some trepidation of being perceived as a traitor.

It’s shown throughout the movie that this story takes place during a time when Malcolm wanted to start his own civil rights group and was grappling with insecurity and anger over how he was being treated by the Nation of Islam. He was feeling doubts about how much loyalty he owed to the Nation of Islam and also concerned about leaving the group because some of his allies could turn into enemies. The movie shows that Malcolm was worried enough that he traveled with security personnel, not just for protection against white supremacists but also for protection against anyone in the Nation of Islam who might come after him for wanting to leave the group.

The rest of the movie is then primarily set in Miami on February 25, 1964. Cassius, who was just 22 years old and soon to be known as Muhammad Ali, wins the world heavyweight boxing champ title against Sonny Liston (played by Aaron D. Alexander), who’s knocked out and gives up in the fight. Sam, Malcolm and Jim (who are in the audience) meet up with Cassius later, and they all go to the Hampton House Motel in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood. It’s a motel that allowed African Americans because Miami was still segregated.

The four friends are all in a jovial mood and ready to party. Malcolm has brought a Rolleiflex 3.5 German twin lens reflex (TLR) camera, and he enjoys taking pictures with it. They horse around, almost like fraternity guys, and take turns using the camera. But the mood eventually turns more serious, as insecurities and differences of opinion rise to the surface.

At first, the disagreements are fairly superficial. Sam is disappointed that they can’t stay at a more upscale establishment, and he complains to the others about it. Jim and Cassius, who are bachelors, want to go looking for women to party with, while the married men in the group (Sam and Malcolm) are more hesitant. And as the night wears on, it becomes apparent that each man is at a crossroads in his life.

Jim has plans to retire from football and wants to become a movie star. He already has a Western film lined up, but Cassius scolds Jim for wanting to quit football. Cassius tells Jim that portraying a “sacrificial Negro” in a Western isn’t the same as being paid by the NFL. Sam is more encouraging of Jim’s showbiz ambitions and tells Jim that Los Angeles is like the Promised Land. Malcolm, who lives in New York City, vehemently disagrees with that belief.

Cassius has become close to Malcolm, who has influenced Cassius to convert to Islam and to be more outspoken about civil rights for African Americans. However, Cassius’ manager Angelo Dundee (played by Michael Imperioli) has been pressuring Cassius to distance himself from Malcolm, who is considered to be too radical for mainstream society. Angelo tells Cassius that white investors and sponsors are very nervous about Cassius’ association with Malcolm. It should come as no surprise what decision Cassius makes, because it started a new chapter in his life as Muhammad Ali.

While Cassius looks up to Malcolm as a pillar of strength, Malcolm isn’t feeling very secure about his life because he suspects that he could be in real danger. Malcolm is paranoid that he’s being followed. He frequently looks out the window, and his suspicions are confirmed when he sees strange men lurking about who could be government spies. Malcolm has a trusted bodyguard with him named Brother Kareem also known as Kareem X (played by Lance Reddick), a stoic employee who is accompanied by a younger assistant bodyguard named Cliff White (played by Kipori Woods), who is in awe of Malcolm.

Sam is a successful music entrepreneur (he owns his own music publishing and record label) in addition to being a famous singer. However, Sam is grappling with what it means to “cross over” to a mainstream (mostly white) audience. Will he be perceived as “selling out” and leaving behind his African American fan base? Or is he just making a good business decision to reach as wide of an audience as possible?

It’s this issue of racial integration that sparks a heated and extended argument between Sam and Malcolm. This arguing leads to the movie’s most memorable scenes and impressive performances from Odom and Ben-Adir, while Hodge and Goree sort of fade into the background. Jim and Cassius mostly just stand by and watch Sam and Malcolm verbally rip each other apart, but Cassius and Jim occasionally interject and try to make the peace when things get too problematic.

Malcolm’s choice words for Sam include: “You bourgeois Negroes are too happy with your scraps to really understand what’s at stake here … You will never be loved by the people you’re trying so hard to win over … You’re a monkey dancing for an organ grinder to them!”

Sam then criticizes Malcolm for kowtowing too much to Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. The R&B crooner also makes a verbal jab at Malcolm by telling him that Malcolm is the only one of the four friends who isn’t as financially successful as the others, thereby implying that Malcolm doesn’t have a real career. It’s a criticism that stings Malcolm because he knows that by leaving the Nation of Islam, he will be leaving behind much of his livelihood for an uncertain future.

Sam also points out that, unlike many black artists, he owns his own work, he invested in buying other artist’s music publishing, and he has the power to hire black people for jobs. “Everybody always talks about how they want a piece of the pie,” Sam declares defiantly. “Well, I don’t. I want the goddamn recipe!”

Jim is more inclined to side with Sam, who believes there’s nothing wrong with racial integration and working with white people. Jim comments on Malcolm’s views that black people need to think like militants: “We’re not anyone’s weapons, Malcolm.” Malcolm replies to Jim, “You need to be, for us to win.”

The issue of colorism is also brought up, as Jim confronts Malcolm about being light-skinned and using his lighter skin tone to his advantage. Jim essentially says that it’s easy for Malcolm to be so militant when his light skin gives him more privileges than darker-skinned black people. Malcolm responds by reiterating that black people’s authenticity should be judged by how black people help other black people, not by skin tone.

Because the characters of Sam and Malcolm have the most emotionally charged dialogue in the movie, Odom and Ben-Adir stand out the most in the film. Odom has the additional talent of doing his own singing in the movie, and his portrayal of Cooke is that of a man with a strong sense of self who’s unapologetic for how he wants to live his life. Ben-Adir’s portrayal of Malcolm X is of a more tortured soul, and the performance comes closer to showing a more human side to the real person. Both performances are outstanding in their own ways, but most people watching this movie, just like in real life, will probably feel more comfortable watching a smooth entertainer like Cooke instead of a restless firebrand like Malcolm X.

The character of Jim Brown is written as a fairly bland and passive person, so Hodge can’t really do much but react to what’s going on around him. However, since Jim is the one who’s the mostly like to be the “peacemaker” in the group, his character is crucial in the moments where the four friends find common ground and have positive interactions with each other. Jim is the “nice guy” of the group, but unfortunately his character also seems two-dimensional. There’s very little indication of what Jim is passionate about, since he wants to leave football behind to become an actor, not for the love of the craft but just so he can become a movie star.

People who know Muhammad Ali as a larger-than-life personality will be surprised to see that he’s not really written as the character who outshines everyone in this movie. Malcolm and Sam definitely upstage everyone else. And that’s because it’s made pretty clear that this boxing champ wasn’t known yet as outspoken activist Muhammad Ali. He was Cassius Clay, a guy in his early 20s who was still finding his identity. Goree’s portrayal of Cassius sometimes veers into a try-hard impersonation that could have devolved into a terrible parody, but he shows enough restraint not to turn the character into an embarrassing caricature.

King’s direction of the movie is solid and gives viewers a clear sense of each location’s atmosphere in each scene. The production design and costume design are well-done, while the cinematography makes the scenes feel observational yet intimate. Although adapting this stage play into a movie results in some extra thrills for the singing and boxing scenes, the movie’s most powerful moments are inside a simple hotel room with just the four main characters. Everything else just seems like frosting on the cake. “One Night in Miami…” is by no means a completely insightful portrait of the four men at the center of the story, but the movie serves as an effective snapshot of what their interpersonal dynamics might have been like in their leisure time together.

Amazon Studios released “One Night in Miami…” in Miami on December 25, 2020, and expanded the release to more U.S. cinemas on January 8, 2021. Amazon Prime Video premiered the movie on January 15, 2021.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival miniseries review: ‘What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali’

April 28, 2019

by Carla Hay

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali in “What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali”

Directed by Antoine Fuqua

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali has been the subject of several movies, but “What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali” stands above the rest as the most comprehensive documentary about him so far.

Other documentaries about Ali have examined specific time periods in Ali’s life, such as famous boxing matches (2008’s “Thrilla in Manila”; 1996’s Oscar-winning “When We Were Kings”; and 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle”) or Ali’s legal problems when he refused to serve in the military during the Vietnam war (2013’s “The Trials of Muhammad Ali”). “What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali” takes a chronological, expansive look at his life, beginning with his humble upbringing in Louisville, Kentucky; his rise to fame that led to several world championships; his awakening as a civil-rights activist and philanthropist; and his battle with multiple sclerosis that led to his death in 2016. Acclaimed director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) brings a definitive cinematic feel to this two-part HBO Sports documentary, which has LeBron James as one of the executive producers.

Unlike most other documentaries about Ali, there are no talking heads providing commentary. It was a wise artistic decision not to pepper the story with retrospective interviews, because they would only distract from the complete immersive experience of the archival footage that transports viewers back to the most significant moments in Ali’s life. Ali’s voice is the singular most important voice in the documentary, as it should be. When viewers hear his poetry, over-the-top bragging and preaching about black pride, it’s not interrupted by “experts” telling people what it all means. Viewers can decide for themselves what Ali meant in his words and actions.

The documentary’s title is in reference to Ali’s rejection of his birth name, Cassius Clay, which was a name that he believed was symbolic of a racist system that stripped African American slaves of their original identities. He changed his name to Muhammad Ali after becoming a member of the Nation of Islam. The name change wasn’t just about his religious conversion but it also represents his metamorphosis from celebrity boxer to outspoken, often-controversial activist who had a close friendship with Malcolm X. The documentary shows several clips of Ali being offended if anyone called him “Cassius Clay” after the name change. One of those clips was Ali’s notorious argument at a 1967 press conference with boxing opponent Ernie Terrell, in a verbal conflict that led to Ali’s famous “What’s My Name” chant. It’s not a question, but a command, for people to take him for who he really is.

Ali was so committed to protesting the Vietnam War that he was sentenced to five years in prison and was stripped of his championship title for three years because he refused to serve in the military during the war. Ali ultimately did not spend time in prison, but he became one of the first prominent athletes who used his celebrity status to protest a war. None of this is new information to die-hard Ali fans or people who were old enough to remember when Ali was vilified for his political beliefs, but people who don’t know this part of Ali’s history will have their eyes opened about how complex and influential Ali has been during and after his lifetime.

Aside from Ali’s social activism, “What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali” also has riveting footage of Ali’s most notable boxing matches, from the most famous opponents (George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Sonny Liston, Leon Spinks, Ken Norton, Floyd Patterson) to opponents whose names aren’t as familiar to the general public (Jimmy Ellis, Bob Foster, Oscar Bonavena, Henry Cooper). There are moments that also show the prickly relationship that Ali had with sportscaster Howard Cosell. Ali and Cosell probably got on each other’s nerves because they had something in common: They both loved being the center of attention, even if it meant that politeness and tact had to be thrown out the window.

The documentary shows that Ali’s stunning victories and crushing defeats have life lessons that are relatable to anyone. And when Ali’s boxing injuries and multiple sclerosis take their toll on his ability to speak with his unique rapid-fire charisma, it becomes even more obvious what a great loss this was for Ali’s larger-than-life personality. During his later years, Ali’s spark was still there, but it slowed down over time.

The most glaring omission from “What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali” is that it ignores Ali’s personal life, which could be a whole other movie unto itself. (He was married four times and had nine children.) But it’s clear that the filmmakers of “What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali” didn’t want Ali’s experiences as a husband and father to be a distraction from the main story, which is to show Ali’s legacy as an influential and unforgettable public figure.

HBO will premiere “What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali” on May 14, 2019.

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