Four icons contend with their legacies in this brilliant drama
By Diana Beechener
Cassius Clay (Eli Goree: Riverdale), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge: Magic Camp), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir: Love Life), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.: Hamilton) all know what it’s like to be Black in America. But they have all found themselves in an odd position—all four men are Black, rich, and influential in America. They can book rooms at luxury hotels and sign autographs for the white staff, but they can’t use the pool.
Some of these men use this power to advance their causes, like Malcolm X who tirelessly commits his life to fighting for racial equality and justice. Others seek equality in different ways. Cooke, who stays out of politics, works within the system to make money and help others get what they deserve from an industry that has historically robbed Black artists. Clay and Brown are already on their way to becoming sports icons and find that they can pretty much do and say as they please, as long as they keep winning.
In 1964, right after Clay beats Sonny Liston to earn the title Heavyweight Champion of the World, the four men meet in a hotel room to celebrate and talk. Malcolm X has an agenda: He’s helped Clay convert to Islam. Such a high-profile member of the Nation of Islam should be a boon to him, but he’s considering leaving the movement after troubling revelations about its leader, Elijah Muhammad, have shaken his faith in the organization (though not the religion).
Cooke and Brown have an agenda, too: Finding out why anyone let Brother Malcolm throw the party when the wildest things he’d be willing to provide were non-alcoholic beverages and vanilla ice cream.
So begins a long night of debate, all four men examining just what they owe the Black community and if there is room for more than one form of activism while fighting for equality.
Based on a play fictionalizing a meeting of great historic figures, One Night in Miami is a wonderful example of breathing life into historic themes. This is the type of film that sounds dry, but surprises you with plenty of humor and brilliant performances. These are not the men of your textbooks; these are friends who love each other and challenge each other in equal measure.
The crackling dialogue is thanks to playwright Kemp Powers (Soul). The rhythms of Clay’s quips and Malcolm X’s speeches are all perfectly captured and his imagined debates and conversations are all lively without ever straying into preachy territory. It’s a tightrope act and Powers balances deftly.
Making her feature directing debut, Oscar-winning actress Regina King hits it out of the park. She avoids a lot of the common pitfalls of play adaptations, keeping the action moving. We spend a great deal of time in one room, but King keeps the camera work interesting and has the actors change locations when necessary. She also manages to pull magnificent performances from her core cast, who embody their roles without ever slipping into parody or caricature. It’s an impressive debut from the filmmaker and one that will hopefully be followed by more films.
King also has proven adept at casting. Goree and Ben-Adir do especially well with figures who are often imitated in pop culture, and have popular biopics about them. Goree’s Clay is a bundle of energy. He’s constantly jumping, bumping his fists, and fiddling with objects in the room. Goree manages to keep Clay from becoming cartoonish, showing the intelligence and calculation that went into developing his public persona. Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X already has the weight of the world resting on his shoulders. His attempts to be as morally righteous as possible leave him alienated and in danger. Hodge’s Brown is a charismatic foil to the two leads; his cool demeanor hides a simmering rage that’s been brewing since his childhood in Georgia. Odom Jr. gets the least emotional work to do, but he manages to steal the show with his performance of “A Change Is Gonna Come”.
Historically, January and February are bad months for films. But as we have learned in the past 12 months—times change. Great films are premiering right on your streaming services. Find One Night in Miami when it releases on Amazon Prime.
Great Drama * R * 114 mins.