Malcolm X. Muhammad Ali. Jim Brown. Sam Cooke. Cultural icons all. In 1964, they came together for one night. While no one truly knows the actual conversation that occurred between these four men, actress Regina King’s directorial debut, “One Night in Miami” takes us into the room with these giants of American history giving us a fictional account of what might have occurred that night, through explorations of their individual ideologies.
Kemp Powers adapted his own 2013 play for the screen. The playwright-turned-screenwriter keeps the film an interesting and dialogue-driven experience that shows these legends as they were, black men navigating a dangerously racist America as their individual celebrity rose.
February 24th, 1964: Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston to become (as the twenty-two year-old predicted for himself) the champion of the world. It is the night Clay becomes champion and the eve of his announcing his conversion to Islam and the changing of his name to Muhammad Ali. Clay celebrates in his hotel room with friends Malcolm, Jim, and Sam.
With every play that becomes a film, the writer and/or director rightly opens the story to show circumstances that go beyond the trappings of the stage. As the film begins, we see each of these individuals in set up moments that represent the struggles each faced in life.
These scenes do not further the drama and exist only to save the audience from feeling stuck by the story’s stage origins.
The only one of these opening moments that carries any weight is a moment where Jim Brown meets with an old friend of the family and supposed fan but is not allowed in the man’s house, due to segregation policies. This brings home the urgency of the film’s commentary on a hypocritical and racist society that loves its black celebrities but not enough to let them into their White-privileged homes.
The film’s centerpiece and its successful dramatic core lie in the interplay between the four main characters inside the motel room. It is here the personalities we all know from their respective histories come into play as the men band together to discuss and argue about their common struggle for acceptance in a divided country.
Elie Goree as Cassius Clay crafts the most realistic cinematic portrayal of the boxing legend to date. In contrast to Will Smith’s mere imitation in Michael Mann’s 2001 film “Ali,” Goree gets it right, digging into the power and soul of the man. The actor finds a way past the legend and gets to the heart of a young man who is about to capture the world through sheer performance.
Aldis Hodge does not resemble Jim Brown all that much but he completely inhabits the man and expertly gets to Brown’s quiet and cool demeanor, also nailing Brown’s deep, assertive vocal style. Hodge’s work has a quiet power that shows on every inch of his face. It is his and Goree’s performances that stand as the film’s best.
Kingsley Ben-Adir does convincingly as Malcolm X but the screenplay brings nothing new to the portrayal beyond allowing us to see the man in a state of semi-relax in unguarded moments with the friends he trusts and respects.
Singer/actor Leslie Odom Jr. fares less well than his fellow cast members. As Sam Cooke, Odom Jr. seems to be trying a bit too hard to imitate Cooke’s raspy, yet smooth speech patterns and we can see him working at it. The singer certainly has the chops to recreate Sam Cooke’s singing voice and does very well in these moments, but it is in his confrontations with Malcolm X (much of the film’s verbal sparring happens between these two men) the actor seems lost in the drama and never fully rises to the occasion. It is a good enough performance but the actor pales in comparison to the work from his more seasoned costars.
The power of the film comes when Malcom asks his three friends to lead clean lives if they are to represent the Black community and to become activists in their every action. This leads to revelations, debates, and fiery arguments as the four men differ on how to define themselves in a country that embraces their celebrity yet detests their skin color.
Regina King does a good job concentrating on the characters and staying away from trying to make her debut overly cinematic, a trap that many first-time filmmakers fall prey to. The director makes her points by guiding the film with a patient demeanor and a steady camera. King creates a proper sense of time and place through the great work from her production designers Page Buckner and Barry Robison and cinematographer Tami Reiker.
Terence Blanchard’s score is potent yet unobtrusive, using his orchestra at just the right moment while his trumpet solos are perfectly placed. Over the decades Blanchard has become one of our finest film composers and this film gives him a strong opportunity to use his skills.
The film examines a celebration that becomes an important dissection of a divided America and these four men’s place within it. Everyone knows the important part all four men played in the civil rights era of the sixties and what their contribution still means to Black Americans. The fact that two of these men, Malcolm X and Sam Cooke, would be killed within two years of when the film takes place gives the proceedings an urgency and sadness that is deeply felt.
Malcom X and Sam Cooke are decades gone. Muhammad Ali died in 2016 and Jim Brown is well into his eighties. All four of these men fought for African American rights for most of their lives, each man leaving their unique mark in history. This is a film about the connection and everlasting bond between these four great men. It connects us all to their souls just as they have tethered themselves to American history. They fought for the right to equally exist as Black people and, sadly, their struggle continues.
“One Night in Miami” is a quite impressive feat of filmmaking debut from Regina King, in the way she pays tribute to these four great men and their place in history. This is the work of a steady and confident hand behind the camera, here’s hoping we’ll see more from her.