One Night in Miami
In February of 1964, four famous black men get together in a hotel room in Miami to celebrate. They are Malcolm X, NFL running back Jim Brown, singer Sam Cooke and boxer Cassius Clay (it is his championship victory over Sonny Liston earlier that evening that they are celebrating). They end up discussing their lives, their futures and their ideologies during a long night that becomes a turning point for all of them.
One Night in Miami (streaming on Amazon Prime) was originally a stage play (by Kemp Powers, who also wrote the screenplay for this movie) and you can tell. It mostly takes place in a single small location and features the actors pacing around giving dramatic speeches. However, much like with December’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, that hardly matters when the performances are good and the material is compelling.
This is the big-screen directorial debut of Oscar winning actress Regina King (she won Best Supporting Actress in 2019 for If Beale Street Could Talk). King’s tallest task is making sure we (and they) are always aware of the challenges these men face from the world lurking outside their hotel room. Somehow, even when the four men are huddled together in a small space, it doesn’t feel confined. There is a lot of truth and power in what they have to say, though don’t let that scare you away; it is fun to watch these disparate personalities bounce off of each other.
The premise of One Night in Miami is based on fact, yet the conversations are completely fictionalized. A prologue establishes the individual issues of the characters. Malcolm may be on his way out of the Nation of Islam. Jim is shattering records on the field, but will never be respected as a person by white people. Sam is a big star, though some think he has sacrificed his beliefs to pander to white audiences. Cassius is beginning to take over boxing and is thinking real hard about becoming a Muslim.
It is kind of a simplistic setup that works for precisely that reason. By giving viewers the chance to see the actors embodying these well-known people in their element at the opening, we can get used to seeing somebody else play, for example, the most famous boxer of all-time. This way, when the deep conversations start, we are used to the idea and see them as men instead of just icons. It is a smart approach by Powers. King pulls it off with sensitive direction that allows her cast to shine.
Kingsley Ben-Adir plays Malcolm X as a passionate man willing to do absolutely anything for his beliefs. He is intelligent, persuasive and very thoughtful as he makes his points. He clearly cares for Cassius, yet getting him to convert would be huge for Malcolm’s own future. That mixes his faith in his cause with his own personal desires. Like his castmates, Ben-Adir had his work cut out for him in bringing this man back to life. He creates the exact Malcolm X One Night in Miami needed.
This is a man who can be convincingly loving one minute (when he is on the phone with his young daughter), proud the next (when he looks at what his friends have accomplished) and a ball of fire immediately after. That last one is largely targeted at Sam Cooke, the only member of the quartet who doesn’t air his opinions to the public (it is no coincidence that, at this point anyway, he was the most popular of the group). Ben-Adir generates a solid presence that brings out everyone’s intensity without overshadowing anyone else. It is a really strong performance.
Leslie Odom Jr. plays Sam Cooke as a man who loves music and is tired of being told he is expressing himself wrong. Odom, who has already proven he can sing (from his work as Aaron Burr in Hamilton), shows a tremendous stage presence when Cooke is singing for his fans (especially in a flashback where we see him cover for an electrical problem). He also more than holds his own in his verbal jousts with Malcolm. His responses when he gets called out for doing nothing to help his people are delivered in a way that lends depth to what could have been a caricature. The same could actually be said for all four stars.
The one who exemplifies that the most is Eli Goree as Cassius Clay. Goree does not merely copy Clay’s poetic usage of the English language, he lets us see a young man who knows he is on the verge of making decisions that will define who he will become. While I was definitely amused by seeing him talk trash or gloat to the media, this isn’t an impersonation. That would’ve been too easy. Powers’ screenplay shows us the public perception of these men and then digs deeper.
Last, but certainly not least, is Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown. Brown is flirting with a movie career and is starting to think about how much easier on his body it is than football. There is a calm in him that is a great contrast to the other three, with a strength that reminds us of how powerful this man is/was, on the field and in public. Hodge is a very talented actor (so good in the criminally underseen drama Clemency) and that is exactly what was needed to make sure Brown did not disappear in the face of his three charismatic friends. In fact, the four men fit together perfectly. That One Night in Miami they had a lot to say about their lives and their roles in American culture. The result is interesting but, even more so, it is really entertaining.
4 out of 5
Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X
Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke
Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown
Eli Goree as Cassius Clay
Directed by Regina King
Screenplay by Kemp Powers