On February 25, 1964, four larger-than-life icons came together for a night that would go down in history – not for what happened, but for what could have happened.
“One Night in Miami” is based in truth. Yes, civil rights activist Malcolm X, NFL star Jim Brown, music legend Sam Cooke and heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay, soon to be Muhammad Ali, were close friends. It’s also true the four once spent a night in a Miami hotel room together and that each of their lives took a dramatic turn shortly thereafter. What no one knows, though, is that actually happened inside that motel.
That’s the premise of Kemp Powers’s 2013 stage play “One Night in Miami,” and now Regina King has brought the what-if? drama to the big screen in her directorial debut. Thanks to King’s steady hand behind the camera and a group of sensational performances from the core four, “One Night in Miami” delivers a powerful portrait of race, justice and celebrity that’s just as relevant now as it was in 1964.
While nobody knows what actually happened inside those four walls, the circumstances surrounding the meeting of the minds in Miami are well-known, which Powers used to create his hypothesis of the evening’s events.
With Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) set to take on Sonny Liston for a shot at the world heavyweight title, stars descend upon Miami for the fight. Among the guests are three of Clay’s close friends: Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). After Clay’s upset win, the four men return to the motel for what they expect to be a victory party – but Malcolm has other plans.
There is no open bar, no music, no party. Instead, Malcolm wants to use the evening as an opportunity for four of the most prominent Black men in America to come together and determine how they can take advantage of their platform. For the young Clay, on the verge of announcing his transition to the Nation of Islam, this opportunity for collaboration is appealing, but for Cooke and Brown who are a bit more reserved with their social commentary, it’s not what they had in mind.
What ensues is a night filled with lively discussion and debate about race, justice and personal responsibility, but when things get heated, the clashing beliefs may create an irreparable rift between the men.
The heart of this film lies in its cast and the rich characters they portray, and it’s clear King is aware of that. Before the men come together and share the screen, each character is carefully introduced and developed individually through a series of vignettes that serve as somewhat of a prologue. Each instance serves as a microcosm of the oppression these men face in the world, and these events shed light on the world views they bring into the motel room.
Hodge is reserved yet powerful as Brown, bringing a sense of gravitas to the room, while Odom Jr.’s Cooke is more playful and outspoken. Neither compares to Goree, though, who nails a pitch-perfect Muhammad Ali impression, from the sound to the cadence and everything in between. Goree’s energy and charisma is just as the real-life Champ’s.
Despite the talent of these three, “One Night in Miami” is Ben-Adir’s film. He commands the screen as Malcolm X, demanding attention as he drops one powerful quote after another. Ben-Adir strikes the perfect balance between warmth and sternness – coming across sincere in his words and actions, but all the while underscoring them with a sense of grave importance. Throughout the night, what begins as a calm, wise discourse between friends eventually boils over into a shouting and arguing, in which Ben-Adir flexes his ability to escalate his emotions so quickly and effectively.
Behind the camera, King shows a strong sense of purpose in her direction. From each lingering pause in dialogue to the framing of every shot, the intention is felt. It would have been easy to simply take the 90-minute, one-act play from stage to screen, but instead, King adds her own touches.
While the theatrical origins are certainly felt in the story’s simplicity – four men sitting in a room talking –King uses the advantages of film to spice things up. Whether it’s the introductions to each character ahead of the meeting in Miami or brief trips out of the room to the liquor store or the rooftop, these small breakaways from the discussion-heavy core of the film provide the perfect change of pace to keep things flowing.
With such strong performances and an incredibly timely and empowering message, it won’t be a surprise to see “One Night in Miami” contending in multiple categories throughout awards season.
“One Night In Miami” will release in theaters December 25, 2020, and is currently playing as a part of Film Fest 919.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.