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.

Sam Cooke: Legend

Ali Sings with Sam!

 DATELINE:   MLK Day Special  

Putting over a song like Sinatra or Crosby was no mean feat for a young black singer in the 1950s. Graduating from gospel and soul music to mainstream, Sam Cooke wanted to be a crossover between white and black, between teeny-bopper and adult performances.

Had he lived a few more years, he would have left the concert trail for the world of movies. By 1964 he would have been a giant in music and film. Instead, he wound up a victim of violence.

The documentary Legend  will amaze you. Jeffrey Wright narrates the film.

His music was emboldened by personality and charm. He wrote his own tunes, from “You Send Me,” to “Chain Gang,” or “Wonderful World,” he was astounding in his ability to put over a song with nuance and flash. He wanted to own his own record company, publish his own music. It was unheard of in segregated 1950s Nashville music. He was a pioneer in equality for audiences with their stars.  He was an avid reader and intellectual, a well-rounded personable extrovert.

You might think the segregated audiences of the South were over, but the true Civil Rights movement was only starting to become a norm when Cooke was making inroads. He was gone before Martin Luther King, Jr., made Cooke’s dream a reality.

The biographical documentary features a few rare performances of Sam in the 1950s, but glosses over some other great songs with a teasing snippet. We would be thrilled to hear a potpourri of his TV show performances on Dick Clark, Ed Sullivan, and other variety shows.

Though his friendship with Aretha is known here, it is his connection to Muhammad Ali (singing together) that astounds. He said he should have written “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and came up with a Civil Rights song, “A Change is Gonna Come,” but he would not live to see it.

Sam’s death remains to this day an unfathomable act.

Many, including Elvis, believed he was murdered because he was becoming another Civil Right icon, like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King. Other movie stories have also raised this issue.

 

Ali & Cavett: Ali’s Main Man?

DATELINE: 60s & 70s

 Ali & Frazier fight Cavett!

If you believe the promo hype for this documentary, Ali & Cavett: Tale of the Tapes, there was some kind of secret friendship between Muhammad Ali and talk show personality Dick Cavett. There was more of a relationship with Howard Cosell (mentioned only in passing and one quick interview clip) and Malcolm X, intense and genuine, but fleeting.

Cavett survives all of them—and he is omnipresent here to discuss his friendship. It is based on the fact that Ali made more appearances on Cavett’s show than any other well-know blab/emtertainment series. That means Merv, Johnny, Jay, and David Frost.

Cavett was the most easy-going and most likely to let guests go off on their personal quirks. If there was a friendship, it was Ali’s sense that he could use Cavett. And, indeed, they have an easy-going time. Rev. Al Sharpton agrees.

There are really no indications that there was anything off camera, as there was with Cosell.  In fact, there are plenty of times that Cavett seems to be biting his tongue in disapproval of Ali’s political pronouncements.

Once in a while Dick shuts up Ali and tells him it’s his turn to talk—but there is seldom any serious rebuke. Too much starpower is in the balance: after all, Ali comes back repeatedly because he is never rebuked.

These TV relationships were golden in those days: whether it was William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal going at it, or David Frost taking on Nixon. It was an age of talking heads, not shouting Fox News fake debate team.

However, as the documentary proceeds, we see that Ali is genuinely fond of Dick Cavett, invites him to his private training camp, and in one great moment of live TV, Ali and Frazier on stage together turn on Cavett humorously when he calls them “palookas” and they lift him off his feet. He is truly shocked. It’s great stuff.

Ali reformed himself into a beloved figure rather quickly after the politics wore off: even Ronald Reagan invited him to the White House for some banter. When he tells Cavett that he’s the only one to invite him on his show after a defeat, he calls the diminutive talk host “my main main,” which does surprise Cavett.

The footage is as entertaining and smart as it was originally. Ali is handsome, garrulous, and charming, while Cavett is pesky, sarcastic, and fawning.

As you proceed on watching this little gem, it becomes better and better.

 

 

 

 

 

Muhammad Ali & Ronald Reagan: American Eagles

DATELINE: Birds of a Feather

reagan & ali

In the mid-1960s two men we admired were considered lightweights, irreverent wannabes, and actually despised in many circles. They were red flags on a snowy field. They stood out, but were considered jokes.

We refer to Ronald Reagan and Cassius Clay. Their respective worlds of politics and boxing were vanilla ice cream when they began to emerge from the wings.

Reagan was a second-rate movie star who did television hosting, and Clay was a blabbermouth walking joke in sports.

Within a few years Reagan was elected governor and Clay became a champion, but that did not guarantee respect. It grew worse when Clay became Muhammad Ali and resisted the Vietnam War and claimed to be a conscientious objector.

Reagan saw his conservative roots battered in the Goldwater defeat, and his California political career was considered a fluke.

By the end of the next decade, they had moved on to becoming social giants, icons of Americana. They crossed paths in the 1980s at their peaks.

Yet, in old age, the cruelty of life and influence turned on them.

Reagan’s conservative Republicanism was hijacked by extremists, and the peace that Ali thought was part of Islam was taken over by jihad terrorists.

Each man also suffered the debilitating effects on body and mind of disease: Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, that robbed them of strength and acuity in their last years.

The world each man hoped to change went awry from their original goals, but we have to admire each for their resolute attempt to do their best for humanity.

 

 

Lebron in His Iron Mask

DATELINE: Unmasked

Image

Lebron’s new mask means to protect his broken proboscis.

Designed by the production team that brought you the Lone Ranger, the mask appears to do its job like a Playtex bra. It uplifts and supports.

We feel compelled to offer a litany of bad jokes, as is our style, but we should start by saying the mask is an improvement. He should have worn it ten years ago.

You seldom find masks that suit your personality. Clayton Moore comes to mind, but Jason Voorhees does not. That white mask makes him the white whale of horror, and we don’t mean James Whale.

We prefer that Lebron rap his face like a mummy or the Invisible Man. That would be horror.

Some have compared the Lebron mask to Batman’s facial cover. However, those masks are intended to disguise and to hide. For Lebron the mask enhances and flatters.

Hannibal Lecter’s mask was unflattering, but Lebron’s has Prada or Luis Vuitton written all over it. Alas, we think it is likely a cheap knock off.

We almost feel that Lebron was born with this mask and has eschewed it for too long. If Lebron has a face meant for radio, the mask makes him a media darling.

Heretofore, all the NBA victims of facial bone breaks have gone with the clear plastic look. Lebron James has always been opaque, if not downright Smokey the Bear.

If Muhammad Ali were playing him in basketball, he would no doubt come to games carrying a bear trap and would have designed the mask personally for Lebron.

We are surprised that Lebron has not made a matching mask for his mother Gloria who has taken to hiding from the media.

Lebron James has become the modern equivalent of the Man in the Iron Mask.