One night in Miami

Hans Hofmann, Laburnum, 1954, Oil on linen, 40 x 50 inches (101.6 x 127 cm).
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By DANIEL BRAZIL*

Commentary on the film directed by Regina King.

Here I want to draw attention to a film that has gone unnoticed by the Brazilian public, even though it was nominated for three Oscars in 2021 (supporting actor, adapted script and original song).

The film marks the directorial debut of actress Regina King (Supporting Oscar in 2019 for If Beale Street Could Talk). It is impossible not to highlight the fact that a black woman, multi-awarded as an actress, launched herself as the director of a film where all the protagonists are men. She was not nominated for best direction, in a year marked by the strong presence of women, but she could have. The film is a powerful account of real characters, brought together in a fictional encounter.

It is February 1964. Kennedy was assassinated in November 63. The US is experiencing a strong wave of struggles for civil rights, against the Vietnam War, against racism. In Miami, young boxer Cassius Clay defeats Sonny Liston and wins the world heavyweight title. Several militants, sportsmen and black artists are in Miami to watch the fight. Among them, Malcolm X, who had entered into a collision course with the leader of the American Muslim Nation, Elijah Muhammad; Jim Brown, acclaimed rugby player, multiple season record holder and budding acting career; and Sam Cooke, soul music luminary, author and producer of radio hits.

The film is an adaptation of the homonymous play by Kemp Powers, from 2013, which places these four characters in a hotel room discussing politics, religion, ideology and racial issues. The adapted script, which had the collaboration of the author himself, broadened the horizons of the play, creating an electrifying prologue where the fight polarizes all attention. It also introduces the other characters, contextualizing the personal dramas of each one. When we find ourselves confined in a hotel room, we already have enough information to weigh each dialogue, which is often aggressive and cutting.

The strategies of each to place themselves in a world dominated by whites, politically and economically, are very different. Sam Cooke, in addition to being a talented artist, is a shrewd businessman, and excels within the "playing the game" system. His clash with Malcolm X is emblematic: although they admire each other, they disagree on almost everything. Clay, who is on the verge of converting to Islam, is not an intellectual, but he has a clear perception of how he can be useful to the Black Pride rescue movement. Brown is more restrained, but he makes witty remarks, for example about Malcolm X having lighter skin than his (Malcolm's mother was the daughter of a black woman who was raped by a white man). I won't say more, so as not to spoil the pleasure of watching an intelligent and provocative film. But I woke up the next day with an old question that had haunted my mind for a few decades: when will we have a movie, novel, documentary or play about the Brazilian black issue of that period? Not about prototypes like Zumbi, Chica da Silva or Pelé, but about the MNU, Movimento Negro Unificado, which emerged during the 64 dictatorship? About the Brazilian Black Front, created in the 30s? About Abdias do Nascimento, the militant intellectual who founded the Teatro Experimental do Negro? About the great actress Ruth de Souza, owner of a unique career in Brazilian dramaturgy? Or, even if they are not protagonists, at least appear in the plot as spokespersons for a (huge) minority. I obviously mean questioning characters, not merely illustrative ones.

Cinema Novo, a moment of political and aesthetic inflection in Brazil, created several black, but mythologized, idealized characters. The memorable interpretations of artists such as Antônio Pitanga, Grande Otelo or Zezé Motta remain on the symbolic level, while the fragmented political reality of the period was represented by mostly white characters. The recent experience of the film Marighela, of rescuing a black character who fought the dictatorship, collides with the fact that the racial issue goes far beyond the character. He is an icon of the white left, who often forgets his black origin on his mother's side, valuing his Italian father. It was a daring move by director Wagner Moura to cast an indisputably black actor, Seu Jorge, in the role.

In the 1990s I interviewed Professor Clóvis Moura, a sociologist with extensive work on the Brazilian racial issue. He ended the conversation with the striking phrase “We blacks have to be the left in Brazil!”, which ended up being the closing of the documentary. In addition to Worker, Black, which we produced at the time. Today, when people take to the streets in the midst of a pandemic to face a genocidal government, I think that indigenous people, blacks, mamelucos, mulattos and immigrants of all nationalities should color the aesthetics of the white left in Brazil a little more.

Returning to the Oscars: it is impossible not to applaud the magnificent direction of the Chinese-American Chloé Zhao, for nomadland, which denounces a capitalism with no exits, in which many do not find decent options for living. But it is worth paying attention to Regina King, who is very promising in a year in which women stood out in the establishment American cinema.

Talentfully sewing real facts and fictional possibilities, King matches the provocative talent of Spike Lee, voicing the yearnings of a population that is systematically attacked, discriminated against and violated in their rights. As Bob Dylan's emblematic song, played at an essential moment in King's film, says, “How many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free?”

Daniel Brazil is a writer, author of the novel suit of kings (Penalux), screenwriter and TV director, music and literary critic

Reference


One night in Miami
USA, 2020, 113 minutes.
Directed by: Regina King
Screenplay: Kemp Powers
Cast: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Gorree, Aldis Hodge.

 

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