One Night in Miami, 2020.
Directed by Regina King.
Starring Kingsley Ben-Adir, Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Lance Reddick, Joaquina Kalukango and Christian Magby.
Four icons of Black history in America meet in a hotel room to celebrate 22-year-old Cassius Clay’s surprise world heavyweight championship victory over Sonny Liston.
On paper, a project like One Night in Miami looks ideal for a first-time director. Penned by playwright Kemp Powers, adapting his own stage production, it unfolds largely within the four walls of a single hotel room and is a talky, actor-driven drama. However, for Oscar and Emmy winner Regina King, this debut presents her with the unique challenge of doing justice to four indelible names in the history of African-American culture – activist Malcolm X, soul pioneer Sam Cooke, NFL star Jim Brown and charismatic young boxer Cassius Clay, who would of course become Muhammad Ali.
The film imagines a rather unique celebration on the night of Clay’s (Eli Goree) upset title victory over Sonny Liston in February 1964. Malcolm (British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir) has arranged for Clay, who is on the verge of converting to Islam, to party in a motel room with Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Brown (Aldis Hodge) – both of whom were expecting something livelier than a few tubs of vanilla ice cream and a four-man tête-à-tête-à-tête-à-tête. The conversation starts congenial, but soon turns into a tense and complex discussion about their various roles in the civil rights movement.
One Night in Miami absolutely makes the most of the inherent energy of bringing this unique foursome together, at the height of their respective fames and at a turning point for Black people in America. A year later, Cooke and Malcolm were both dead, while Clay was known by his more memorable moniker. King opens the movie with a series of quasi-prologues, establishing each of the characters and the ways in which they are all kept down within their various fields by virtue of their race. The film has a tendency to plod early on, but becomes a powder keg of rising egos once the four men are locked within the crucible of Malcolm’s making.
King’s direction is smartly unshowy, heightening the claustrophobic tension of the scenario while also allowing the star quality of these personalities to glisten through every frame. Goree’s take on Clay is enjoyably bizarre, capturing the intense arrogance that characterised the posturing prince of pugilism, while also finding the likeable charisma that made him such a popular star. One scene, in which Clay explains his public persona with reference to famed pro wrestling heel Gorgeous George, neatly encapsulates the seemingly contradictory aura of the man who would become Ali. British actor Ben-Adir, who is also notably playing Barack Obama in The Comey Rule, plays an interesting Malcolm bedevilled by a nerdy kid need to be liked among the sportsmen and singing stars.
The standout of this excellent cast, though, is Leslie Odom Jr. as swaggering music supremo Sam Cooke. Anyone who has spent their summer hammering the repeat button on Hamilton thanks to Disney+ will be familiar with his effortless singing voice, but it’s his dramatic chops which capture the spotlight here. Much of the movie’s tension crackles between he and Ben-Adir, who differ fundamentally in their approaches to furthering the Black cause. Odom perfectly embodies the consummate showman, grappling with the notion of “selling out”.
The way his eyes sink when Malcolm plays Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind, pointing to a white man’s understanding of the Black struggle through art, tells the audience everything they need to know. He’s ashamed of his own record, and that’s felt keenly right up until the moment that he breaks into a performance of his subsequent hit Change is Gonna Come. His eyes glitter with the energy of a man given new creative vigour and a fresh purpose, beyond the cold, hard figures of economic success by which he had previously judged himself.
Powers’s script is packed full of delightful nuances, whether it’s the aforementioned economic sparring match (Malcolm dubs Cooke a “bourgeois negro, too happy with your scraps”) or the way Hodge’s Brown challenges Malcolm on the notion of colourism. This isn’t a biopic about any of the four famous men at its centre, but rather a story that uses these iconic figures to explore broader issues about the civil rights movement and the way many of its debates are still yet to be resolved, or even discussed in a meaningful way.
One Night in Miami is a terrific calling card for King as a director. She approaches the material with sensitivity and energy, as much as she does righteous argument, to construct an acting showcase with the ability to do justice to some of the biggest names in African-American history. The central conceit is an inventive one, but King deserves enormous credit for enabling it to find its feet on the big screen in a way that, despite its hemmed-in setting, never feels simply ripped from the stage. There’s no proscenium arch here; it’s proper cinema.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.