The part that we know is fact is that in February 1964, shortly after underdog Cassius Clay defeated heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in Miami (considered one of the greatest upsets in boxing history), Clay called together three of his closest and most famous friends—singer Sam Cooke, football legend Jim Brown and spiritual leader Malcolm X for a meeting at a hotel to celebrate. What isn’t exactly known is the content of their conversation, but playwright Kemp Powers did some educated speculation about the topics that may have been covered in his stage play One Night in Miami, which he also adapted as the feature directing debut of actress Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk, HBO’s Watchmen).
Set at a turning point of the Civil Rights movement, the story takes place primarily in the hotel room where they met, bouncing around from talk of racial injustice, personal behavior and responsibility, spirituality, and being a success in the white man’s world—these are conversations that are still being had, so they seem as timely as ever. But having these four figures, all of whom were at very different places in their lives, bandying about ideas and opinions is fascinating and riveting. The moment is made especially poignant because Brown and Cooke don’t know that Clay (played with uncanny similarity by Eli Goree, a Riverdale and Ballers semi-regular) is about to announce his conversion to the Nation of Islam and name change to Muhammad Ali, under the guidance of Malcolm X (a breakout role by rising talent Kingsley Ben-Adir), who himself is about to leave the Nation to start his own splinter organization, hoping to take Ali with him.
At the time, Cooke (Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr.) was one of the most beloved voices in entertainment (by both Black and white audiences) but there were still places he couldn’t go or stay during his travels, and that was becoming increasingly more enraging for him. He was also on the verge of recording his most overtly political and inspiring song, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” inspired after hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.” And Jim Brown, well he was just happy being Jim Brown (another dead-on performance by Aldis Hodge, last seen in The Invisible Man), but as one of football’s most respected players, he’s decided that perhaps acting is his calling. He also contributes some of the best one-liners in the film, and like Cooke, he wants to actually go out and party to celebrate their friend’s victory. But Malcolm and Clay are committed to not drinking and have a slightly more substantial agenda in mind for this historic evening.
No one is afraid to speak their mind, to be critical of another’s decision, or to outright challenge some of the ideas that Malcolm X is asking them to commit to when they head back out into the world. Malcolm wants them to demand more radical changes to the systemic racism in the country, while Cooke was of a belief that slow and steady wins the race (his death in December of the same year was a devastating blow to music and the movement). But that didn’t mean he didn’t have thoughts about white and Black America, and his flaw may have been his desire to appeal to both equally.
While all four of the main performances are remarkable, the standout discovery here is Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X; he works in the shadow of Denzel Washington’s landmark characterization in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, yet here he is giving a less flashy but equally powerful and laser-focused performance that is fraught with anxiety and uncertainty. This version of Malcolm is about capturing his humanity and not necessarily showing him as a great, influential orator or leader. Here, he is just a friend, but a friend with ulterior motives that impact his future as well.
Despite its limited location, One Night In Miami feels beautifully cinematic, and director King makes the hotel suite feel warm, colorful and conducive to both friendly and abrasive conversation. The film celebrates conversation, debate and friendship, and its capacity for inspiration and a call for social justice and equality should not be overlooked. This is a fantastic movie, easily one of the best of the year, with some of the strongest acting of 2020 as well.
One Night in Miami opens in theaters where they are open on Friday, December 25, and begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video on January 15.
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