Film Review – One Night in Miami
One Night in Miami
One Night in Miami (2020) sets up a fictional “What If” scenario. What if you took four 20th century Black icons – Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke – and congregated them into one room. What would happen? What would their conversation be like? How would their personal philosophies clash or complement one another? Each of them played a prominent role in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, but each one stood as their own individual person. They each had their strengths and weaknesses – each one held firm beliefs while also harboring doubts and insecurities.
It’s a testament to Regina King’s skill as a director (making her debut behind the camera) to take the stage play (by Kemp Powers, who also writes the screenplay) and make it feel fresh, alive, and timely. When you have characters confined to a single location with nothing to do but talk, you had better have something interesting for them to talk about. We meet the four men in February 1964, a critical time for all of them. Muhammad Ali – at the time still going by his birth name, Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) – just won the heavyweight championship by beating Sonny Liston. The four are supposed to meet at a Miami hotel room to celebrate Ali’s win, but the night evolves into a debate about what it means to be a Black Man in a White America.
All of them are going through an internal struggle. Clay is about to embrace the Muslim faith and join Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) in the Nation of Islam. However, Malcolm is considering breaking away from the organization after hearing of Elijah Muhammad’s nefarious private life. Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) is the best football player in the world, yet the temptation of an acting career is tough to ignore. Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) was once a hot musical act, but lately his star has lost some of its shine.
Right away, we get a sense of what King and Powers are examining here. These are iconic Black men, who have each reached a level of excellence in their field, and yet they are still seen and treated as secondary citizens. The theme is established early on when Brown travels to meet a supposed friend – Mr. Carlton (Beau Bridges) – who also happens to be white. While their conversation seems pleasant enough, things turn south when Brown isn’t allowed inside Mr. Carlton’s home because he is black. The message is clear. Here is a man who broke records in the NFL, who is considered by many to be a living legend in his profession, and yet he still isn’t good enough to be treated with respect by the white community.
The narrative maintains a level or urgency as the four begin their night in the motel room. There’s a nice, even handed way in how King and Powers construct the conversation. The characters laugh, joke, discuss, debate, push, and challenge each other in an even ebb and flow. Two of them rise as competing points of view. Malcolm X points out how Sam Cooke sings songs for white audiences, and how Bob Dylan writes songs that better describe their struggles compared to Cooke’s romantic ballads. Cooke counters by explaining how he runs his own record company, owns the masters of his music, and uses his influence to help other black artists. Out of all of them, Cooke is the only one who doesn’t rely on a white man signing his check.
This back and forth between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke operates as the main point of tension, with Ali and Brown orbiting around them. The debate would not work quite as well if not for the effectiveness of the cast. Each of the four main players deliver strong performances. Kingsley Ben-Adir and Eli Goree have the toughest assignments. Both Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali were already immortalized onscreen (by Denzel Washington and Will Smith, respectively) so Ben-Adir and Goree start off at a disadvantage, but the two hold their own in the roles. Aldis Hodge exhibits the physical stature of an athlete, but the mind of person who is more than that. Hodge has a way of speaking softly but cutting right into the heart of any given matter. Leslie Odom Jr. stands out as the highlight, painting Sam Cooke with multiple shades. His Cooke is a shrewd businessman and charismatic singer but has the self-reflection to question whether he is doing enough for himself and for his people.
Often, when a stage play is adapted into a film, a production may have difficulty maintaining momentum. There’s only so much that can be done when stuck in a single location. The opposite is true here. The performances and writing are so strong that when King and Powers break away from the hotel room, the narrative becomes less interesting. The boxing sequences with Ali is staged like any other of its kind. We don’t see much of Cooke’s personal life besides the small moments of him singing. Malcolm X’s relationship with his family feels undercooked, and outside of the one strong scene at the beginning, we get very little dimension out of Brown. Maybe the point was to view these characters in this one small sliver of time when they fictionally crossed paths, but if that’s the case everything we see beyond that felt like filler.
What does it mean to have power? What does it mean to have responsibility? For the characters of One Night in Miami, it means using your status for the greater good. Few things are more interesting in the movies than watching smart people talking about things that really matter. The great success and tragedy of what’s discussed here is that – while these conversations are set in the past – they are still very much relevant to the present.