One Night in Miami: Writing for Political Change
This week we’re going to be looking at One Night in Miami by Kemp Powers, adapted from his play.
The movie, if you haven’t seen it yet, is about a fictional evening between Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown.
In exploring One Night in Miami, we’re going to be talking about three things that will be incredibly valuable to you as a screenwriter: the way the screenplay lands its powerful political and emotional message, the slightly old fashioned way it uses exposition (it’s not perfect), and the simple power of a character’s secret as a tool for building structure.
When you’re writing a political screenplay like One Night in Miami, it’s important to make sure you’re not just preaching to the choir.
To create a desire for change in your audience, you need to take your audience to a place of deep and transformative emotional power. And the way One Night in Miami succeeds in doing this is by fusing its political message with a powerful emotional message.
And this is what we all strive for when writing a political movie: we’re all striving to move an audience to not just affect their intellect, but to actually move them emotionally in relation to a topic, so that they feel a new kind of empathy and understanding they might not have felt if they hadn’t watched the film.
And the way that we do that is by allowing them to see themselves in a character and move them on a journey just like that character is going through. So it’s an emotional move that actually creates the power of a political film.
What’s really interesting about One Night in Miami is that despite the incredibly powerful place it ends up, it doesn’t start very strong, mostly because of that pesky little problem called “exposition.”
In an attempt to set up the world of the movie for the audience, rather than launching us right into the action, One Night in Miami starts off by introducing the four main characters and setting up things the old-fashioned way.
The most problematic of these intros is the one with Jim Brown, so that’s the one we’ll look at.
Jim Brown, potentially on his way to Miami (it’s not quite clear) has stopped off at the house of a white family friend. And he has an extraordinarily long conversation with his white family friend on the front porch of the Southern gentleman’s house. And while the writer has an ace up his sleeve for the final line, the conversation is problematic for a lot of reasons.
The first is, nothing is happening. And when I say nothing is happening, what I mean is Jim Brown doesn’t want anything from his white friend. He’s simply stopping by. And similarly, the white friend doesn’t want anything from Jim. He’s simply chatting him up.
If anybody wants something, it’s the white friend’s daughter, who just wants to be in the company of this legend. But even her want really gets attenuated. And what the scene ends up doing is what a lot of not-so-successful scenes do, it ends up being a set-up scene for the audience.
Now there is an incredible line at the end of the scene that is absolutely devastating. Because what you watch is a very long scene where this white man is so nice to this black man, is so kind to him, and so lovely to him. And Jim Brown is so nice and lovely to his white friend. And then, for reasons that are not exactly clear, the daughter pops in and says, “Hey, Dad, are you going to help me with that furniture?”
And why exactly the daughter, who just wants to be in the company of this legend Jim Brown, is interrupting her dad’s meeting with this superstar family friend to move a piece of furniture is not particularly clear. But it’s really there as a setup, right?
Because we’re going to find out that this white man who has seemed so nice (“if there’s ever anything I can do for you…”), so lovely, so caring, so “non-racist,” he is not going to allow a black man into his house. Because when Jim offers to help move the furniture, in very strong terms that I won’t repeat here, he’s told that he can’t come inside.
This is an important scene because it sets the world of the piece. And it’s not a world of not subtle racism, micro-aggression, of saying one thing and doing another, but rather of overt aggressive racism hidden under this very sweet southern charm veneer.
It’s an important scene because it sets a world that maybe we’re a little bit less familiar with. And it helps you understand the political circumstances out of which these conversations between Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke are actually happening.
It’s a vital scene for understanding the world of One Night In Miami. But it’s not a very effective scene until you get to that last line!
In fact, if you wrote a scene like that at the beginning of your script, it’s likely that no one’s ever going to get to that great one-liner at the end. Because they’re going to end up thinking, “Ah, this doesn’t really work…” and setting it down.
And why doesn’t it work? Because without the wants and the obstacles that are so vital to structure, their conversation is just a conversation, setting up information for the audience. It’s just pure exposition. It’s just pure setup.
We can feel the writer telling the audience “You need this information and you need that information. Oh, did you know that Jim Brown was famous? Did you know he’s a hero, even for white people? Did you know how many yards he’s rushed for? Do you know he’s a football player? Do you know what the racism of the time is like?”
They’re setting up that world. But they are not setting forward the drama.
When you think about exposition in your screenplay, think about it as something you do along the journey, not in preparation for it. If you think of your movie like an awesome road trip, the exposition is something you do in the car. It’s not something you do while you’re packing. And the way that you do that is simply by animating the scene with a want.
Imagine if Jim Brown showed up because he needed a place to sleep. Imagine if Jim Brown showed up because he wanted an old keepsake that his white friend was keeping for him. Imagine if Jim Brown showed up, because he needed some advice on the next step in his career. Imagine if Jim Brown showed up for any reason at all!
And, similarly, imagine if his white friend had a purpose in inviting him there. Or even if he just wanted to get back to moving his furniture, and had to navigate the obstacle of this old family “friend” who showed up at his door. Imagine if his white friend had any action and desire at all!
What would happen is, rather than feeling expositional, the scene would feel dramatic.
It used to be okay to start a movie with exposition. We used to think about the first 10 minutes of the film as set up. But today, those clunky little moments at the beginning feel old-fashioned.
Unless you’re already famous, you just can’t do that anymore. We just can’t spend time setting up anything anymore, because our readers are just too likely to just switch to the next script. Our audience is just too likely to click to the next show. They’re too likely, if we don’t engage them from the very beginning, to just move on.
While One Night In Miami is not a perfect film, fortunately, once it gets past that clunky bit of setup, it’s got some pretty extraordinary structure So let’s talk about why One Night in Miami works so damn well. And it’s a good lesson, which is to show you that even if you’ve got a problem in your script, it’s transcendable.
The reason that One Night in Miami transcends is because of a very, very simple structural concept: which is that every single one of these characters has a secret. And their secret complicates the political message of the piece.
The mistake that many writers make when writing a political movie is to get up on their soapbox and start preaching. And if you get up on your soapbox, and you start preaching, and you write one-dimensional characters who are all good or all bad, who are just an embodiment of a simplified belief about how people should live their lives, what you’re going to end up with is only preaching to the choir.
And there’s nothing wrong with preaching to the choir. But quite frankly, the choir is not who needs your help. If you’re making a movie about racism, you don’t need to preach to the people who are already deeply aware of systemic racism. You have to preach to the people who maybe are not.
And so what’s really fascinating is each of these characters has their own journey in relation to the racist world that they live in. And they all have a secret. A secret that they’re keeping from each other, and maybe even a secret that they’re keeping from themselves.
Malcolm X’s secret in One Night in Miami is that he is going to leave the Muslim Brotherhood, this movement that he so values, to which he’s dedicated his life.
He’s realized that the organization is led by a corrupt person, and he wants to escape the corruption to start his own movement. But leaving isn’t gonna be easy. It’s a secret because it risks all the political progress that he’s made.
So he wants to leave the movement and he needs to recruit his friend Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali. He needs to recruit his friend to the cause in order to actually successfully leave the Muslim Brotherhood and potentially continue his life’s work.
So that’s a complicated secret, right?
Cassius Clay has an equally complicated secret in One Night in Miami, a secret that similarly happens on more than one level.
Cassius has basically promised him at the beginning of the movie that if he wins the title, he is going to convert to Islam. This is the day that Cassius Clay is going to become Muhammad Ali. He’s made that promise, and he wins the title.
And part of Muhammad Ali’s secret from himself is that he doesn’t necessarily even believe he’s actually going to win the title.
But there’s an even deeper secret underneath that big blustery ego of Muhammad Ali, which is that he’s not sure if he really wants to convert.
He doesn’t really know if he wants to give up drinking, if he really wants to change every aspect of his life.
And so Malcolm X is playing this complicated game, which is a secret both from himself and from Cassius Clay. Because the story he’s telling himself as a character is, “I am fighting for Cassius Clay’s soul, and I am fighting for the soul of the black man. I am working as Cassius Clay’s spiritual mentor in his best interest because I love him and care about him as a friend.”
And that is true. But there’s also a secret, there’s another aspect of it, which is “I am manipulating my friend into something that he might not really be ready to do. Because I absolutely need him, I need the power of his reputation, to make this move out of a corrupt organization, and to continue my work on my own.”
So you have this very complicated relationship between the two of them, each with secrets from themselves and each other. And both secrets grow out of each man’s point of view on how to deal with a racist world.
Malcolm X has answered the problem of racism by living a very intense moral code. It’s not about having fun and partying like some of his friends. It’s not about making money like some of his friends. It’s not about sports success. It’s not about becoming a celebrity. It’s not about integrating with the white man. It is about empowering black men in the ways of Islam. It is about a militant fight for change. And it is about living by a rigid standard, a rigid set of codes which he does not want to violate.
Muhammad Ali has responded to the same problems through bluster and through big talk by being a celebrity. But also by going on a personal journey into Islam, trying to understand who he really is, and warring with the two parts of himself. The part of himself that feels accepted and the part of himself that knows that he’s not.
And if you add Sam Cooke to the mix, he has an even more complicated secret. He has a completely different way of dealing with racism.
Sam Cooke has told himself a lie, as well. Sam Cooke has a secret from himself. Sam Cooke’s lie is that if you want to overcome racism, you have to play the white man’s game.
You need money. And he has dedicated his life to making money, to owning things, to being able to produce black artists by making money by playing within the system. That’s how he’s responded to the problem of racism: becoming the best of the best inside a racist system, getting to the top of the Billboard charts, creating the music that they want to hear.
There’s a secret, which he is not admitting to himself, which is, number one, they’re never ever going to really accept him– and we see this from the very first moment he’s introduced.
But number two, the even deeper secret is that there’s a part of him that wants to be the voice for social change like Bob Dylan. There’s a part of him that wishes he wrote a song like Bob Dylan´s song, the one that Malcolm X will play for him. There’s a part of him that wishes he was speaking his truth, instead of the lovely love songs that white people want to hear.
So you have Sam Cooke, who has a lie to himself and to others, which is “I’m just fine. I’m playing the game and I’m winning”. When underneath, there’s this feeling that “I wish I could say what I really feel. I wish I could find my voice”.
And finally, you have Jim Brown.
Jim Brown’s secret in One Night in Miami is even more complicated in its simplicity and puts even more pressure on the other three. Because all Jim wants is to enjoy what he’s got!
He wants to party, get laid, and be a movie star.
Jim Brown is the most celebrated football player in the world. He is a living hero. And his secret is he doesn’t want to play football anymore. But his other secret is, his answer to dealing with racism is that he doesn’t want to fight! He wants an easier life. He wants to party and become a movie star.
So you have these four different characters with four completely different ways of dealing with the problem of racism. And where they start, none of these four characters are honoring their own voice. None of these four characters are being 100% true to themselves.
Cassius Clay has not told Malcolm X that he’s not sure about Islam.
Malcolm X hasn’t told Cassius Clay or any of his friends that he’s thinking about leaving the nation and that he is (maybe to some degree) manipulating Muhammad Ali into getting what he wants.
Sam Cooke has not even admitted to himself, much less his friends, that he’s not exactly happy playing inside the system, that there’s a part of him that wishes he wrote that Bob Dylan song. And Jim Brown has not admitted to his friends that he doesn’t want to fight. He doesn’t even want to play football anymore. That he wants the easy life and the fun career.
So what you have are four characters who seem to be the biggest voices in America. But none of them are actually expressing their true voice.
You have four characters in One Night in Miami who have four different answers to the problem of racism that are mutually exclusive, and none of which are totally correct.
And the structure of the script, the journey of these characters is so simple, which is that these four characters end up finding their voice.
Malcolm X has to tell the truth to his friends and to himself that he’s leaving the Brotherhood.
And Cassius has to realize that he may have been manipulated, and come to terms not with the ideal mentor, but the flawed one that actually before him, and still decide that he is going to come out as Muslim and rename himself. Not for himself, but for his friend.
Jim Brown is going to end up leaving football and getting his career and making cheesy action movies
But the biggest emotional journey happens through Sam Cooke.
The structure of Sam Cooke’s journey in One Night in Miami comes simply by adding more and more pressure as the characters’ different secrets, and their different strategies for dealing with a racist world, bump up against each other, until even Sam Cooke has to break.
From the very first scene, we’ve been watching Sam try to hold on to the lie that he can be accepted. It all starts when he goes to perform for the white people in his dream venue, and they don’t want to hear him play.
We watch him hold on, and lash out, we watch him put on a smiling face, we watch him fight with his friends, we watch him argue, we watch him battle, we watch him refuse to admit the truth.
And then we watch those walls get broken down for him. Until he has to admit the truth that he wishes that he had written that song. That he wishes he had expressed the true feelings about the battle and the fight. That he wishes that he had expressed the true emotions that he and his people have, and still have, in this world of racism.
And what the whole movie builds to is such an incredibly powerful ending, that’s a perfect completion to Sam’s journey.
And there’s a small spoiler ahead. So if you haven’t seen the movie yet, this might be the time to tune out…
We get to this beautiful moment where Sam’s on The Tonight Show. And he is singing one of his perfect love songs. And you, as the audience, tell yourself this story about “Oh, he went back to trying to tell himself a lie.”
But at the very end of the film, Johnny Carson asks him to play one more song. And it’s his real song.
And what you watch is a man find his voice.
And this is what’s so beautiful about One Night in Miami, not just as an emotional movie but as a political movie. Because this is a movie about people who have been robbed of their voice, wrestling not in one unified way, but in the complex, messy way that we’re still wrestling today.
Wrestling for this very simple idea of finding their true voice, of empowering themselves enough to say what they actually feel.
And in this way, One Night in Miami is a little window for any audience to understand what it’s like to be robbed of your voice. To understand that the battle against racism is not a simple battle, not a simple, unified idea, it’s a complex struggle.
But at the center of it is a very simple idea, which is having the courage to tell our truths.
And of course, this is the challenging journey of being a writer.
Are we going to tell the story, write the formulas that we believe people want to hear? Or are we going to tell our truths? Are we going to sing our real songs? Are we going to write our real words? Are we going to have the courage to find our voices?
And if we do, it’s my belief that those voices have an incredibly transformative effect not just on ourselves, but upon our entire society.
I hope that you enjoyed this podcast. If you would like to study with me, in addition to our free classes every Thursday night, there is a new way to study with me. It’s a brand new Master Class that meets one Sunday a month for a full day deep dive intensive. And what we do each class, is we go really, really deep into one aspect of screenwriting. Each topic in the class grows out of the questions and concerns and the writing of the students in it and because it’s an ongoing class, it attracts a group of deeply committed writers, serious writers who want to go on a journey not over a month, but over a year or more. So if you’ve already taken our foundation classes like Write Your Screenplay or Write Your TV Series, and you’ve been looking for a next step, then come check it out!
*Edited for length and clarity.