Now Playing! The United States vs. Black Stars

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Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X, Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown, Eli Goree as Cassius Clay, and Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke in 'One Night in Miami.' (Amazon Prime)

As we count down the remaining hours of a 21st-century presidency that endorsed and encouraged racist ideas, attitudes and policies, a trio of new movies set in the 1960s (and one in the ’50s) reminds us that institutional prejudice is a time-honored American tradition. I wonder, though, what J. Edgar Hoover, who despised influential Black celebrities, would make of Donald Trump faking friendships with Kanye West and Tiger Woods.

Compromise is the devil’s brew, as we see in the tense trailer for Judas and the Black Messiah (Feb. 12), which revisits the too-brief saga of Fred Hampton, the galvanizing leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, through the eyes (and ears) of an FBI informant. The United States vs. Billie Holiday (Feb. 26) dramatizes the consequences of the great jazz singer’s decision, over a decade earlier, to provoke rather than soothe and entertain.

Their releases appear timed to coincide with Black History Month. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s upcoming birthday, presumably, is the tie-in with this week’s openings of One Night in Miami and MLK/FBI. Or could they be tacit acknowledgements that a new, non-racist sheriff is coming to town?

One Night in Miami
Jan. 15
Amazon Prime

The underlying premise of Regina King’s addictive, beautifully acted film, adapted by Kemp Powers from his play, is that nobody knows you, loves you and busts your butt like your brother. Even if you’re a household name, he’ll nail your weaknesses, self-deceptions and crises of conscience. It’s never fun, especially when you’re a Black man who’s already measured and judged every second by the white majority.

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In the sweet afterglow of his 1964 upset victory over Sonny Liston for the heavyweight crown, Cassius Clay joins soul singer Sam Cooke, football star Jim Brown and Malcolm X in a Miami hotel room. Instead of the party that the athletes and musician envisioned (which Malcolm isn’t onboard for, obviously), secrets will be revealed and a few courses corrected.

Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X in 'One Night in Miami.' (Amazon Prime)

It’s no accident that the protagonists are all on the cusp of risky changes: Clay is joining the Nation of Islam (and will shed his “slave name”) while Malcolm is plotting his departure from the Nation. Brown has just made his acting debut with the aim of quitting football, and the crowd-pleasing, crossover crooner is writing socially relevant songs.

Smartly yet unobtrusively directed by Regina King, One Night in Miami is an alive, exciting film that judiciously generates suspense and pathos from our knowledge of its protagonists’ coming months. It’s got more on its mind than half-a-dozen typical movies put together, presented in the irresistible guise of private access to four smart, ambitious men who are grappling with how to parlay their personal success into gains for the civil rights movement.

As it happens, Amazon Prime also has the perfect nonfiction follow-up to One Night in Miami: Bill Siegel’s revelatory 2013 documentary, The Trials of Muhammad Ali.

MLK/FBI
Opens Jan. 15
VOD

Sam Pollard’s first-rate 2017 documentary, Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, which aired on PBS’ American Masters, fits right into our conversation about entertainers-cum-activists. Pollard’s new doc is a good deal drier, excavating history for its own value and contemporary relevance rather than for nostalgia or entertainment (not to diminish the wide-ranging Davis portrait). A sober indictment of institutional racism, MLK/FBI catalogs J. Edgar Hoover’s clandestine, obsessive wiretapping, bugging, surveillance and intimidation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Hoover’s ostensible initial justification was King’s close friendship with a Jewish lawyer, accountant and—wait for it—one-time communist. That made King one kind of enemy of the state; speaking out against the Vietnam War in 1967 made him dangerous in another way. Throughout the late ’50s and ’60s, of course, as a Black man who marshaled tens of thousands of (nonviolent) everyday citizens, King was a threat to the status quo.

Martin Luther King Jr. in Sam Pollard's 'MLK/FBI.' (Courtesy IFC Films)

As ridiculous as this sounds today, there was more: The G-men actively recorded King’s extramarital liaisons in hotel rooms, and leaked transcripts and recordings to the press with the goal of discrediting him. (No one stooped to print the allegations, apparently, in the days before the National Enquirer and, cough, TMZ.) They even mailed tapes to Coretta Scott King, the reverend’s wife.

I found MLK/FBI a bitter experience, in part because it’s so clear in hindsight that law enforcement actively used its power to persecute Black people while protecting white supremacists. The injustice is especially infuriating after last week’s riot, when coddled white seditionists carried Confederate flags into the U.S. Capitol.

The film to watch after MLK/FBI—if somehow you still haven’t managed to see it—is I Am Not Your Negro (2016), Raoul Peck’s brilliant representation of James Baldwin. It’s a helpful, albeit painful guide for the work ahead of us.