By Courtney Thomas
One Night in Miami is a speculative look into a fascinating night in history. Set on February 25, 1964, the day Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) won the world heavyweight championship, the heart of the play-turned-film is The Champ’s victory celebration, a small affair in a shabby hotel room attended by Malcom X, singer Sam Cooke and football legend Jim Brown. The four men were friends, the gathering really occurred, and vanilla ice cream was indeed served, but exactly what was spoken about is uncertain.
Playwright and screenwriter Kemp Powers’ imagination of what might have happened is gripping, weaving together the anxieties weighing on each man during a momentous year in the Civil Rights movement. Malcolm X knows he’s being watched and is preparing to break with The Nation of Islam, a move that may leave new convert Cassius Clay isolated. Jim Brown is on the verge of transitioning from the NFL to the silver screen, and racism affects the possibilities and personal relationships of each character. The daily effects of racism are visually evident in practically every shot, as this group of celebrities is staying at Miami’s Hampton House, a slightly run down inn that caters to Black travelers, instead of a luxury hotel.
The cast is up to the daunting task of making the larger than life characters seem relatable and believable. Eli Goree captures the pride of 22 year old Cassius Clay and his complicated relationship with Islam. Sincerely seeking spiritual guidance from Malcolm X, over the course of the night Goree’s Clay reckons with how much he may need to give up to pursue the religious life. Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X is a family man balancing the incredible weight of trying to work despite the target on his back, humanized by the script’s inclusion of his interest in photography. Leslie Odom Jr.’s Sam Cooke is an entertainer through and through. He clashes with Malcolm X in a tension surrounding how much direct activism the moment calls for, with Cooke arguing for advancement through economics, as he uses his weight in the music industry to help Black musicians retain the rights to their songs, while Malcolm pushes him to use his voice to forward the Civil Rights Movement. As Broadway star Leslie Odom Jr. closes the film with an incredible rendition of Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come, a soulful civil rights anthem, it appears Cooke has been swayed by Malcolm’s call to action. Aldis Hodge portrays Jim Brown, who keeps the peace in the group but is not without his own emotional burdens stemming from the racism he faces despite his celebrity and athletic success, and now, on the brink of a Hollywood career, is beginning to navigate the sticky politics of representation.
It’s a rare treat to get an intimate look at the way such influential figures relate to each other. They may have had different opinions on how to move Black America forward, but they tease and laugh with one another like any friend group. Their conversation touches on pressing intellectual issues of the day, and while the film is serious, it is never too heady or rooted in little-known historical points for a casual viewer to follow.
The real drama of the film is all conversation and takes place in a single room, a sign that the story is more at home on the stage than the screen, but in her directorial debut, Regina King finds plenty of ways to allow the camera to work. With a fly-on-the-wall view of the action, shifting locations, and an exploration of each character’s backstory and epilogue, the visuals are never stale. The medium of cinema also allows King and Powers to give screen time to characters beyond the central four, most notably Betty Shabazz (Malcolm X’s wife, played by Joaquina Kalukango).
One Night in Miami successfully takes on an incredible challenge. Balancing history, celebrity and the needs of the film’s narrative arc, the “what-if?” drama is, as Powers described in an appearance on the Write On podcast, “a work of fiction powered by the truth.” While not every detail is based on a real event, the facts of history loom over the drama, making the interactions between these four men even more poignant. Malcolm X’s friendship with Muhammad Ali effectively ended when Malcolm denounced The Nation of Islam and Ali aligned himself with Elijah Muhammad rather than his mentor, and Sam Cooke and Malcom X both died by violence within roughly a year of the night on which the film is set. Even so, the film tries for honesty rather than eulogy. The characters’ debates about whether or not one is activist enough resonate as Americans today continue the work to address racism, and the film contains memorable speeches about issues we still face, including the prevalence of stereotypes that dictate minority representation in Hollywood and the pushback entertainers often face when they include their politics in their work. Like the real-life figures on whom the characters are based, One Night in Miami is not a film that will be soon forgotten.