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Fact-checking ‘One Night in Miami’: Did Malcolm X really get into a fight with Sam Cooke?

  • January 16, 2021

four legends convened in a hotel room over laughter, arguments and discussions about religion.

Cassius Clay had just dethroned Sonny Liston, the world heavyweight boxing champ. Following his triumph, Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown met up in a Miami hotel room, and though one can only envision what the four icons talked about, their conversations are reimagined in Regina King’s “One Night in Miami” (streaming Friday on Amazon Prime).

After that night, Cooke would go on to release “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali and joined the Nation of Islam, Jim Brown launched his acting career and Malcolm X was assassinated. 

“One Night in Miami” screenwriter Kemp Powers, who adapted his own 2013 play, walks us through that fateful evening and how it really went down.

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Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir, from left) takes a picture of his friends Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) in One Night in Miami.

Were Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown together in Miami?

In fact, they were all good friends and had been in the years leading up to the night of Clay’s win.

Clay was a huge fan of Cooke, the biggest RB musician of his time, and the two would often meet up to party after Cooke’s shows or Clay’s fights, Powers says. And with NFL legend Brown being a Black athlete like Clay, the two were in the same circle. 

“Sam was absolutely fascinated with Malcolm X because of his politics of Black self-empowerment, which is something that Sam Cooke sincerely believed in, even though he was a Christian,” Powers says.

Though it may seem strange that Cooke, the son of a preacher, would be enthralled with what a Muslim man had to say, Powers reminds that at the end of the day, what they had in common was that they were Black. 

“We don’t give each other as much grief about our different religious or political beliefs the way other groups might do, so it didn’t strike me as unusual,” Powers says.

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Was Jim Brown prevented from entering his white friend’s home?

In the first few minutes of the movie, Brown visits a friend at St. Simons Island in Georgia.

Mr. Carlton, an elderly white man, is elated that the football star is at his front door. He invites him to have a seat on the porch and offers him lemonade as the two chat. He has nothing but praise for Brown and even begs Brown to let him know if there’s ever anything he can do for him. 

He’s nothing but nice until Brown offers to help him move a piece of furniture. “So considerate of you, Jimmy, but you know we don’t allow (racial slur) in the house,” Carlton tells him.

Though the incident didn’t go down exactly the way it was portrayed in “One Night in Miami,” Powers says Brown wrote about a similar experience in his autobiography. 

“He went to go visit an old white guy at the behest of his aunt, and the guy was very nice and friendly to him but made him stay out on the porch because the guy didn’t allow Blacks in the house,” without explicitly saying so.

“Despite the success, he was reminded in that moment that he still had to stay in his place,” Powers says. “And when I hear things like that, it automatically takes me to things people have done with modern athletes, with the anger directed at Colin Kaepernick, when a conservative tells LeBron (James) to ‘shut up and dribble.’ I mean, it’s the same exact thing.”

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Was Malcolm X being followed (hence the bodyguards)?

In the film, Malcom X is rarely seen without his two bodyguards at his side. He was always looking over his shoulder and seemingly suspicious of his surroundings.

“He did have that paranoia – rightfully so, because he quite literally was (being followed)” by the FBI, Powers says.

We also see one of his bodyguards talk to an FBI agent. In reality, Powers says, Malcolm X was guarded that night by an undercover informant. 

The real Sam Cooke performs at the Copacabana nightclub.

Did Malcolm X goad Sam Cooke into writing ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’?

While the four men hang out, Malcolm X and Cooke get into a tempestuous argument, and Cooke heatedly leaves the hotel room and drives off.

Powers says though the squabble was his creation, the reasons behind the fight were based off fact and the beliefs of the four men, who were all going through transformative periods in their lives.

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Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, celebrates after winning the heavyweight championship with a knockout of Sonny Liston in the seventh round on Feb. 25, 1964, in Miami Beach, Fla.

Did Cassius Clay change his name after beating Sonny Liston?

“One Night in Miami” closes with Clay announcing that he will now be known as Cassius X.

Powers says the boxer really did that the next morning, when he revealed to the media that he was joining the Nation of Islam. He changed his name a few weeks later from Cassius X to Muhammad Ali.

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