This film–a very timely look, particularly with what’s going on now, at this very moment–is quite a detailed look at the real Martin Luther King and the real Federal Bureau of Investigation. With the sheets pulled off everybody, this film is almost an intellectual nudist camp, allowing the viewer to absorb an-often sordid story that, as Ronald Reagan (!) warns at the beginning, isn’t pretty. Yep, King’s extramarital sextape is real, and the FBI did try its best within its own twisted bounds of evil legality to destroy him. Along the way, the viewer sees King’s trajectory through the eyes of the Federal Bureau of Investigation–the radical King, the one only the Left or Black nationalists talk about. The filmmakers punk out at the end, though, choosing not to sift through the detail of the assassination itself and not explaining the larger and smaller intelligence agencies, or philosophies thereof, at work. (The Black context of King’s death is here, in what seems to be a 1969 episode of Black Journal, when the national black public-affairs television show and the wound were both still fresh.) The oral-history-format (just voices, no speaking-heads until the very end) and extensive use of file footage, from newsreels to television shows, is combined with the fine-tooth-comb research of David Garrow and others. This is the proper documentary to watch as America’s scabs are bleeding.
The more interesting, dramatic story that still needs to be told the playwright Kemp Powers saw only as a backdrop for Malcolm’s vulnerability. I understand the pop-culture impulse to Black Pack it–to show Sam Cooke, Cassius Clay-cum-Cassius X-cum Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown (who replaces Joe Louis in the broadcast booth as Clay beats Sonny Liston for the fist 🙂 time) and Malcolm X in a Florida hotel room and imagine what they talked about. With Martin Luther King absent from this meeting, the playwright decides in One Night in Miami to treat Malcolm as your annoying Jehovah’s Witness cousin who spoils your birthday party. The quartet are all at their own individual crossroads and discuss racism a lot, but the radical edge that is coming for this fantastic four as the ’60s grow late is blunted, only hinted at, a la Beneatha and Walter Lee in a Raisin in the Sun. By the time the purposely-shrunken (humanized?) Malcolm The Scold gets teased like a nerd, critically assessed (translation: he’s called full of shit! “You don’t have a job, Negro!”), humbles himself, cries, etc., and makes amends, the real film about Cooke (Leslie Odum Jr., showing Hamilton was no fluke!) has already started. One day someone will not be afraid to write about the decolonizing transition that Blacks–particularly Malcolm and Ali–really went through during this period; the weak closing quote from Malcolm shows that integration into American society on Black terms is all that this story was about, the only Black Power it can handle, and that is truly sad. (And when someone from a major studio has the courage to film that harsh-toned future script, that studio should immediately hire Regina King, who makes an extraordinary directorial debut here.) Two of the most radical African-Americans of the mid-20th century–two men that in their own ways personified Pan-Africanism after Marcus Garvey–remain in their comfortable rough-draft form, creatively but purposely.
Matt Taibbi (below), a journalist I’ve admired for some time, does a fantastic job here of explaining the mechanics of how journalism is formed in the newsroom.