One Fictional Night

Bill Russell Joins Ali & Brown 3 Years Later

 DATELINE: One Night in Miami

Upon hearing that a storyline made into a one-set play and thence a movie concerned a one-night meeting of Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown, all black men in the early 1960s on the cusp of change in civil rights for oppressed people, it’s hard to believe. It sounds like a fantasy of historical fiction.

Yet, it really happened.

The opening of the movie is not part of the original play and historical theories, though based on fact. The director Regina King had to open it up with white actors.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had his bugs planted to listen in on a hotel room chat among these men in February of 1964.  It’s hard to believe they even knew each other or would have anything to say to the other. Yet, they did.

In fact, Muhammad Ali (not yet Cassius X) was a close friend of Sam Cooke. They truly hit it off:  an intellectual who read avidly like Cooke would seem to be swayed by the egotistic charm of Clay, but they had a kind of fame and cultural tie.

The training camp of Ali, he would attract the attention of Malcolm X and/or football star Jim Brown. Yet, it did, but the movie broadens the tale to include white hangers-on like Johnny Carson

Would a gospel Christian like Cooke even speak to a Muslim? Well, Cooke had been called the devil for singing pop tunes, and it would not be a big reach to be condemned for cavorting with a Muslim.

Would men whose personal ego and self-absorption in their careers be even remotely interested in anything larger? Well, segregation and racism would be a factor.

We suspect that Hoover had a detailed transcript of the discussion these men held: whatever fanciful chat that derives from the play/movie.  Two would be dead within a year, and one would become a political controversy. Was Hoover’s unseen hand involved? This story doesn’t say.

The film blatantly ignores Jim Brown’s assault history on women, which could also be a Hoover set-up, but this is not explored.

Only Brown still lives, having gone into movies (Ali later followed).  We suspect Cooke would have been a bigger star than all of them had he not been murdered (assassinated for black power over-reach?).

The movie is akin to a stereotype acting job, broad as a Marx brothers farce anchored in political doom. It’s ironic and iconic, but we’d rather see J. Edgar Hoover’s actual transcript of the night they all met.

On Jan. 22, Sam Cooke would have celebrated his 90thbirthday.

Classic Jim Brown, The Slams

Jim Brown, Jan Merlin in The Slams

DATELINE:  70s Prison Movie

When you have a film from 1973 and the cusp of a new wave, you can expect “exploitation” that includes heavy-handed use of the “F” word and the “N” word among prison populations. Audiences may have been a tad shocked by this new adult content. The film is given the black idiom name, “The Slams,” short for slammer.

Jim Brown is the hero or antihero of sorts. Having been in a gang that murders a half-dozen people for drugs and money in the first few minutes of the movie, he rejects the drugs and kills his accomplices. But, he has a lovely kind mother who shows up for a minute and disappears. That is part of the script’s problem: comings and goings.

The cast is somewhat familiar, only because Lurch from The Addams Family is around as a white gang leader, looking young and tall and handsome. Frank de Kova is the mob leader in prison who has a suite of cells and curtains, but runs the show.

The warden’s office features one of the most hilarious photos of President Richard Nixon: looking shifty-eyed, even before Watergate and his resignation.

And, Jan Merlin has the unenviable task of flirting mercilessly with Jim Brown. He tells guards, to “check his crotch” during a search, which may be one of the most outrageous lines of his acting career.

Director Jonathan Kaplan was the nephew of actor Van Heflin and thought he was Hollywood royalty.  He made some truly B-level films in his oeuvre. But some directors cannot be dissuaded from their lofty self-image.

Having fallen out of favor with both Brown and the director over character expectations, Jan Merlin’s “Golden Mouth” inmate brazenly ingratiates himself to Jim Brown—and suddenly is gone to the cutting room floor.

This was not the first director Merlin clashed with. It is the fate of all actors who dispute their director and star. What a shame that the most interesting part of the movie simply evaporates.

Dr. William Russo’s movie collection of reviews of prisoner films is titled Imprisoned. It is available on amazon in both paperback and ebook.


Escape from Devil’s Island

co-star/co-author Jan Merlin


DATELINE: 1973 Blaxploitation Movie

 Jim Brown’s prison movie about the 1917 French island prison came before the prestige movie with McQueen, titled Papillion. They had overlapped during filming, but the speed of Roger Corman could not be matched. He was not interested in “art.” He wanted a product that might titillate audiences

I Escaped from Devil’s Island  had all those ingredients.

The film began on a high note: Jim Brown is dragged from his cell in the tropical prison to a makeshift guillotine. He is about to be beheaded before the credits even roll. No flashback was required because the sado-masochistic guards had set this up, knowing a general amnesty for all French prisoners had arrived and no one would be executed. It was cruel kindness.

Of course, this Roger Corman quickie was called a blaxploitation film, geared toward making black audiences approve of a black hero. It’s hard to realize Brown was really doing trail-blazing work, and perhaps the other shocking part of the movie was the open homosexual relationships in the movie. The gay characters are in eye-makeup and are called “fancy boys,” who have boyfriends like James Luisi and Chris George. Rick Ely played the pretty boy who has his nipples tortured in one scene.

Jan Merlin, in eyeglasses, played the leader of the political prisoners—and a communist, which was a true work of performance since Jan was a Republican. For him it was another character unlike his cultured, soft-spoken self,  playing at abrasive, uncouth villains. We must confess to be transparent that Jan co-authored many books with Ossurworld.

The “F” word is used surprisingly often for the first time in movies here, often just to discuss homosexual relations. And nearly every male to male encounter is fraught with both sexual and sadistic overtones.

Once the escape plan takes hold, the movie seems to peter out. Yet, films like this paved the way for leading men of the future like Denzel Washington.

The film deteriorates toward the end with a chaotic fireworks display in a city to help the escapees flee authority.

The best performance in this movie was given by Acapulco, the Mexican resort town, playing Devil’s Island.