As One Night in Miami… begins, the four icons of its focus all find themselves at a crossroads in their lives and careers. Young boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) is rapidly rising through the ranks, but his lack of focus results in close contests and missed opportunities. Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) has already achieved great things as a professional athlete, setting records and earning fame and wealth. But no matter the success he achieves, Brown still has his race flung back into his face even by those who would claim to be his fans.
Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) is in a similar boat in his music career. No matter how many records he sells or how popular he is with black audiences, Cooke still ends up scrapping for gigs at white venues that don’t like him, performing for white audiences that don’t know him.
And then there’s Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), who has reached a breaking point in his relationship with the Nation of Islam and its leader, Elijah Mohammad, leaving the revolutionary uncertain of his future within the revolution.
Regina King’s film presents an imaginary evening in which these four men collide and commit to the paths that will result in each achieving an iconic status that lasts to this day. Written by Kemp Powers, based on his play (based on this and his work on Soul, Powers had just an incredible 2020), One Night in Miami is a remarkably assured directorial debut from King, and easily one of 2020’s best films.
It’s interesting to compare Miami to another play recently adapted for film, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. While I would highly recommend that film as well and can’t say enough good things about the performances it contains (particularly Chadwick Boseman in his final role), Ma Rainey is a film that you can feel straining against its stage-bound origins, repeatedly leaving the enclosed spaces of August Wilson’s words to try and affirm its cinematic qualities.
Miami doesn’t exactly try and hide its own origins as theater. It’s a film primarily built around conversations, more often than not within a single enclosed space. But King as a director (and presumably Powers as a screenwriter) is extremely smart in how she utilizes the confined nature of this material. You might not guess the film’s origins during the first half, given how much time and space is covered showing the diffuse paths each man took before ending up in that hotel room.
When Miami does finally settle into its main setting of a single hotel room, King uses the space as a pressure cooker. The longer these men occupy a space together, the more steam builds between them until something has to explode. King and her team (including cinematographer Tami Reiker and editor Tariq Anwar) expand and contract the room as needs be, often framing shots around different characters’ bodies to highlight their physical closeness versus their emotional/philosophical clashes.
And boy do they clash. The meat of the film takes place following Clay’s first defeat of Sonny Liston, after he has been newly crowned as the heavyweight champion of the world. Cooke and Brown arrive at the hotel expecting a quick hello before heading out to a party, but Malcom instead wrangles the other three men into an impromptu summit so they can discuss, among other things, what each man can be doing, in their position as beloved public figures, to advance the cause of black liberation.
Kemp’s screenplay does a lot of heavy lifting quickly and efficiently defining each man’s position both as an icon and as complex human figure. That’s the needle that each actor needs to thread as well, and one and all go above and beyond to both capture the myth while also laying bare the man.
Hodge as Brown is the film’s bedrock of decency, a fixed object around whom the others all orbit. Hodge is one of the most innately likable performers on film right now (something that last year’s Invisible Man also got a ton of mileage out of) and all he has to do is cock an eyebrow for you to immediately latch onto Brown as the moral center of things. But Hodge’s cool exterior masks a particular sort of slow-burning fury, and he possesses the ability to completely flay any other man in the room with just one tossed off line.
As the man who will be Muhammad Ali, Goree is attacking things from the opposite angle. He’s loud and brash and energetic as a puppy, but there’s an element of calculation to all of it. Clay’s entire life is essentially performance. Even when the cameras are gone and he is supposedly in the company of friends, he’s still putting on a show. It’s only when he’s alone with Malcolm that he truly lets his guard down. Goree dials directly into the vulnerable young man masked behind the showboating performer and the big bruiser body.
And his vulnerability obviously makes a huge mark on Malcolm X. As played by Ben-Adir, Malcolm sincerely responds to the vulnerability in Cassius, but he also can’t help but weigh the ways this young man could be used, both for the revolution and for Malcolm’s own plans. How much of their bond is true friendship and how much is strategy is something the film pointedly never confirms, but Ben-Adir allows you to see both the calculation and the heartache going on behind those glasses.
While all four men are given choice material to play, One Night in Miami, at least in this film version, ultimately lands as Malcolm X’s story, with his specific conflict with Sam Cooke as its defining thread. Both men would be dead within a year of the events of the film, and that knowledge adds an underlining sorrow to the scenes of these men verbally tearing each other to pieces.
Malcolm X views Cooke as the ultimate sell-out, while Cooke quickly wearies of Malcolm’s holier-than-thou speechifying and loaded rhetoric. Maybe the boldest thing that Kemp’s screenplay does is allow Malcolm X to be annoying, like the kid in your dorm room who won’t shut up about his grand political insight when all you want to do is grab some drinks with your buddies.
Beneath all that speechifying is a man coming apart at the seams, unsure for maybe the first time in his life as to what his next step should be and beaten down by all the work still left to do. Ben-Adir attacks the role with everything he has, bringing not only righteous fire and brimstone but also frailty, mania, and just plain exhaustion.
And Odom Jr. as Cooke attacks every opening he can find. Odom Jr. is an actor who seems possessed by a coiled rage at all times (it’s what makes his performance as Burr in Hamilton so sublime, and Branagh used that same quality to great use in Murder on the Orient Express) and it results in palpable tension as the film grows more and more heated.
But One Night in Miami ultimately focuses itself into a story not about conflict between black men but about the ways in which they can inspire and support one another. King argues for these bonds of brotherhood as being not only the thing that make the world worth saving but the thing that will in fact save the world.
Some may take umbrage with the license this story takes with historical truth (Sam Cooke didn’t need to be berated by Malcolm X into making bold art and supporting the Civil Rights Movement) and that’s certainly fair. But King and Kemp remix history with an aim towards speaking truths for today, and if you meet the film on that level its final moments are both soaring and almost too bitter to bear.
Regina King’s directing captures all the deeply felt humanity that she has always expressed, seemingly effortlessly, in a lifetime of immaculate performances. With her remarkably assured debut, she’s crafted a film that anyone with a dozen directing credits under their belt would be jealous of.
She has lit up the past with both ecstatic joy and bone-deep sorrow, and the result is one hell of a terrific movie.
One Night in Miami is available to stream on Amazon Prime.