On 18 May 1922, at the Majestic hotel in Paris, Proust, Picasso, Stravinsky, Joyce and Diaghilev all sat down at a dinner that has become a symbolic moment in the history of modernism. Proust and Joyce were such rivals that they could barely manage monosyllabic conversation, and later argued in the car over the Irishman’s smoking.
The Black civil rights movement of the 1960s had its equivalent gathering on 25 February 1964, in Miami Beach, Florida, when Cassius Clay (soon to become Muhammad Ali), Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and NFL superstar Jim Brown gathered in Malcolm’s hotel room. It was the night that the young boxer defied the odds to defeat Sonny Liston and win the world heavyweight championship. History records that the four giants ate vanilla ice cream – and not much else.
Yet the imagination abhors a vacuum, and in June 2013, One Night in Miami, a dramatised version of this extraordinary occasion, by Kemp Powers, opened in Los Angeles. Now, Regina King – hailed for her performances in If Beale Street Could Talk and the Watchmen series – has transformed the play into an Oscar-worthy movie that is also her directorial debut (Prime Video, 15 January). In September, she became the first African American woman to have her work selected at the Venice Film Festival.
Much has been written about the relationship between Malcolm X and Clay under the banner of the Nation of Islam (which Malcolm would subsequently leave). Less has been written of the debate between the Muslim Black nationalist and Cooke, but Kemp accurately describes Malcolm’s irritation that a white singer such as Bob Dylan should have written a liberation song as powerful as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ was a fine response to that objection.
Though the film fizzes with a sense of history – resonant to this day – it is also astute in its observation of personal anxiety and reflection: Clay’s astonishment at the scale of what he has achieved in the ring and his uncertainty about the leap to Islam; Brown’s ambitions to go into the movies; Cooke’s defensiveness about his complicity with the white-dominated music industry; and Malcolm’s foreboding about what lies ahead (he was gunned down in February 1965 at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City).
The performances – Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X, Eli Goree as Clay, Aldis Hodge as Brown and Leslie Odom Jr as Cooke – are uniformly excellent. The first essential movie of 2021.
Meanwhile, don’t forget to book a place at the first Creative Sensemaker Live ThinkIn of the year on Friday, 19 January at 1pm GMT – at which we’ll be talking about the resilience and possible future of the printed book.
And here are this week’s recommendations:
(To buy any of these books, and browse further, click on the title to go to the Tortoise Book Store.)
Asylum Road – Olivia Sudjic (Bloomsbury, 21 January)
Sudjic’s debut, Sympathy, was hailed as the first great novel of the social media age – a subject which she also addressed in her essay, ‘Exposure’. In Asylum Road, she explores fresh terrain without losing her compelling grip upon the contemporary. The story of a young engaged couple, Anya and Luke, is rich in characterisation, the claim of history upon the lives of ordinary people, and the interplay between borders and personal identity. It also has one of the most striking final acts in recent fiction, establishing Sudjic as the leading novelist of her generation.
The Art of Fairness: The Power of Decency in a World Turned Mean – David Bodanis (The Bridge Street Press)
In the days leading up to Joe Biden’s inauguration, Bodanis’s book is a useful and eminently readable primer on the uses of good behaviour. Assembling a mass of case studies – deployed with narrative skill – he argues that decent (and successful) leadership is much more common than orthodoxy suggests: “It’s just often not noticed because more monstrous egos grab our attention.”
Concrete Rose – Angie Thomas (Walker Books)
This eagerly anticipated prequel to The Hate U Give (2017) – which has already been made into a successful movie – does not disappoint. Turning the clock back 17 years, it is the story of Maverick Carter (father of Starr Carter, the main character in The Hate U Give) and a deeply nuanced journey through the crisis of masculinity facing young African American men in a world of structural racism and competing loyalties. Labelled a YA writer, Thomas is an author whose work everybody should read.
Franco’s Map – Walter Ellis (The Conrad Press)
Why didn’t General Franco join the Axis powers in 1940, seize Gibraltar from the British and establish a new Spanish empire in north Africa? This is the question that inspired Ellis’s excellent new novel, a historical thriller written with a style and panache familiar to those who have read the author’s journalism over the years. Highly recommended.
Wandavision (Disney+, 15 January)
For those who miss (as I do) the splendidly gritty Marvel television spin-offs on Netflix – Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, The Punisher – this is an interesting test of Disney’s ability to match its streaming rival in the hugely competitive superhero marketplace. Wandavision is set in the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame (2019) – the climactic 22nd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and finds the Scarlet Witch, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), living with her android consort Vision (Paul Bettany), in what appears to be fifties suburbia, reminiscent of The Dick Van Dyke Show. Which is odd enough, especially as (spoiler alert) Vision apparently died in Avengers: Infinity War (2018). Confused? You will be. But if it sounds like a surreal step too far ask yourself this: when did Marvel Studios supremo, Kevin Feige, last fail?
Pieces of a Woman (Netflix)
Vanessa Kirby – best known for her portrayal of Princess Margaret in The Crown – is a revelation in Kornél Mundruczó’s profoundly moving account of a couple torn apart by the loss of a newborn child. Shia LaBeouf and Ellen Burstyn excel, respectively, as her rough-hewn husband and disappointed mother. But the film’s moral and emotional weight rests squarely on Kirby’s shoulders and she delivers a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination (at least).
This spin-off of the BBC’s drama series The Missing, finds detective Julien Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo) retired in Amsterdam and recovering from a brain tumour. Drawn back by the case of a missing sex worker as a police consultant, he meets Edward Stratton (Tom Hollander), the girl’s uncle. What follows is a near-psychotic version of Holmes and Watson in which Baptiste deals with his own demons and Stratton’s precise role is tantalisingly unclear (if you’ve seen The Night Manager or Hanna, you’ll know how persuasive a bad guy Hollander can be – as well, of course, as the benign star of Rev). Prestige television at its most prestigious.
Servant (Apple TV+, 15 January)
Though Apple’s streaming service has been a general disappointment, the first season of Servant was an undoubted highlight of its first months – and M Night Shyamalan’s most gripping project since The Sixth Sense more than 20 years ago. Who, exactly, is the spooky nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), come to work for Dorothy and Sean Turner (Lauren Ambrose and Toby Kebbell)? Who are the menacing cult members who follow her to invade the couple’s life? And why is Ron Weasley taking so many drugs (Rupert Grint as Dorothy’s brother Julian)? Sinister, with a comic edge, this is ideal lockdown viewing.
Welfare Jazz – Viagra Boys
The Stockholm-based, post-punk quintet’s second album starts as it means to go on with ‘Ain’t Nice’, but there is plenty of satire and saxophone along the way to sugar the pill. The sheer energy and wit of Viagra Boys recall LCD Soundsystem or Beastie Boys at their life-affirming best. You’ll believe that you’ll dance again in 2021.
Songs for the Drunk and Broken Hearted – Passenger
Indie-folk darling Michael Rosenberg expected his 13th studio album to be released last year – and then was inspired to revise the whole thing when Covid turned the world upside down. Though the connecting theme in these 20 tracks is undoubtedly heartache, Rosenberg’s command of melody ensures this is much more than hipster doom-in-the-ears.
Elgar – Sheku Kanneh-Mason, London Symphony Orchestra & Sir Simon Rattle
The winner of the BBC’s 2016 Young Musician competition, like so many gifted cellists, takes on Elgar’s works for the instrument – one of the great mountain ranges of this particular calling. The result is dazzling, an intergenerational collaboration between Kanneh-Mason and Rattle.
Do please send us your own recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Take care of yourselves – and each other.
Editor and Partner
Photographs: Netflix, Disney+, Apple TV+