Miles Ahead, a biopic about the jazz legend Miles Davis, is directed by its star, Don Cheadle, one of the best actors in these United States. He also cowrote the script and spent almost a decade developing the project with Miles Davis's family. Cheadle was considered to be the best man to play this role. What could go wrong? The mind of a very talented actor meets the mind of a brilliant musician. Indeed, during the film's first five minutes, we do not see Cheadle at all—he has vacated his body and it is now occupied by what really looks very much like the soul of the trumpeter who gave the world Sketches of Spain, Kind of Blue, Birth of the Cool, and Miles Smiles. After this opening, however, the film falls apart.
The problem is not found in the white Rolling Stone reporter, Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), who is our guide into Davis's world and memories. That part is fine. One can live with it. Many reporters are, after all, white. No, the problem is located in one of the biopic's many fictional elements—the gangster element. This element not only dominates the plot but also involves shoot-outs, bullet wounds, blows to the head, drug dealers, an underworld car chase, and Miles Davis doing his best to be one badass motherfucker.
Now, before I explain why this gangster element is so bad, and even harmful, I need to take you to a classroom in Sharptown, Maryland. This is the year that the space shuttle Columbia lands after its first trip to space. My teacher is a white woman with a thick Southern accent. Her class has 20 students—18 are white, and two black. I'm one of the black kids, and I sit next to the other black kid, Marcus. We share a desk not because we are friends (in fact, Marcus hates me), but because the white teacher is certain that we are the slowest students in the class. As a consequence, I spend much of that year working hard to get the grades that will get me away from Marcus. I want to be with the other kids. Marcus can sit by himself in the stupid section of the class. As the school year draws to a close, I have three As and two Bs, and still sit next to Marcus.
This experience wounded me for years. Why did a large number of white people believe black people were stupid? Though my grades were fine, I started to believe what they believed. How could all of those people be wrong? Blacks did not produce geniuses or anything like that. We had no Newton, no Einstein, no James Watson. Then in my teens, I discovered modern jazz, thanks to a cousin named Tendai. I began listening to Bud Powell, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Art Tatum. The first two were brilliant; the last two geniuses. All four made it clear to me that my teacher at the Maryland middle school was completely wrong. Modern jazz was a high art that imposed great demands on musicians. This music expressed the minds of very intelligent human beings, who happened to be black.
So when I watched Don Cheadle's biopic on Miles Davis, an artist who scored much of my college years, I was deeply disappointed to see Davis characterized as a gangster and not an intellectual, which, as Cornel West once pointed out, is what jazz musicians are. It takes a decade to master a horn, a piano, a drum set, a double bass. You have to start young and practice really hard to produce the proper sounds and read and write music. When you hear a jazz track that's done right, you are listening to years of education and a knowledge of music that's encyclopedic. This Miles Davis cannot be found anywhere in Miles Ahead. One instead gets the impression that he came across a trumpet after surviving one of those Shaft-like shoot-outs and, you know, just started playing the damn thing. He did not need no education and any of that dumb shit. What you will not find in the movie is what obviously happened in his life: long and quiet moments of deep reflection.
If you want to see a film that understands and even celebrates the technical and mental challenges America's classic music imposes on an intellectual, you have to watch Whiplash, which, of course, is about a white guy.