You already admired Regina King as an actress: For the mixture of hope and fury she brought to Angela Abar/Sister Night in Watchmen, and her grace and determination in If Beale Street Could Talk, and the humanism she injected into the otherwise absurd Seven Seconds. I’ll keep going: for The Leftovers, The Boondocks, Miss Congeniality 2 (yes, I am being serious!), Enemy of the State, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and, of course, Jerry Maguire. (There was more than a little bit of shock in the Pajiba Slack when the New York Times put out that list of best actors and actresses of the 21st century and King wasn’t on it; I am pretty sure Dustin was about to burn the NYT newsroom down.) And with One Night in Miami…, King’s directorial debut, she demonstrates another facet of her myriad talents.
Her adaptation of Kemp Powers’s same-named, extremely heralded 2013 play is assured and adventurous, transporting us to February 25, 1964, and a meeting that occurred between four Black men whose names have reverberated throughout the ensuing decades: civil rights leader Malcolm X; young boxer Cassius Clay, before he converted to Islam and renamed himself as Muhammad Ali; singer Sam Cooke; and professional football player Jim Brown. What was discussed during that meeting was lost to history, but Powers’s play—and his screenplay here, as he adapts his own work for King’s film—imagine conversations about religion and individuality, purpose and community, racism and activism. Each of these men has suffered as a result of an unjust America, and each of them is at a turning point in his life, and each of them is trying to navigate what lays ahead. Is there a certain level of talky-ness here that belies the theatrical roots of this project, as in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom? Sure. But also like that film, it’s the cast of One Night in Miami… that pulls you in, ensnares your attention, and doesn’t let you go.
King starts her film with a brief, but telling, introduction for each man before bringing all four of them together on the night of 22-year-old Clay’s win over Sonny Liston to become “the Greatest” and boxing’s World Heavyweight Champion. Clay couldn’t stay in a swanky oceanfront hotel in Miami Beach because of the city’s segregation laws, so instead he and his friends gathered at the Hampton House Motel. Before they all arrive there, King provides little prologues to give us a sense of each man’s personality and attitudes, and given the film’s intimate focus on this quartet, that contextualization serves an important purpose. Clay’s (Eli Goree) theatrics and braggadocio aren’t always loved by his coach and trainer, Angelo Dundee (Michael Imperioli!), but he always backs it up, and it drives white people crazy. While Clay is beginning to dominate his sport, he’s working toward a conversion to Islam, guided toward the faith by already-iconic Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). Malcolm is overjoyed by Cassius’s turn toward Islam as a religion, but he’s lost confidence in the Nation of Islam as an institution because of leader Elijah Muhammad’s hypocritical actions. Both Malcolm and his wife Betty (Joaquina Kalukango) realize the devastating impact that severing themselves from the organization that owns their home, pays all their bills and has jettisoned Malcolm X to mainstream prominence could have, but this is a question of morality, and in that area, Malcolm does not budge.
On the other side of the coin are two men whose public personas are not so defiantly tied to challenging white people. Singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) is frustrated by the obvious racists who walk out of his shows, but the self-proclaimed “Mr. Soul” is still putting hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank and is more prone to picking his battles. Somewhat similarly minded is football player Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), who has put up phenomenal numbers during his years with the Cleveland Browns but still returns home to St. Simons Island, Georgia, to white neighbors who praise his athletic prowess before calling him the n-word to his face. Cooke and Brown obviously aren’t happy with the world as it is, but they’re struggling internally with the question of what an individual person can really do. And when they learn at Cassius’s post-Sonny-knockout party that Cassius is converting to Islam, they’re shocked, and don’t understand the choice he’s making. “We can’t all just go out and declare the white man the devil!” Cooke says, but neither Malcolm (“Oh? Why not?”) nor Clay is particularly swayed.
With all that setup in place, King guides One Night in Miami… forward through a rearranging of these men into various trios and pairings. As most of the action takes place in Malcolm X’s hotel room and in other locations in and around the building, King follows conversations that demonstrate the close bonds between these four (how much they razz the pious Malcolm for celebrating Cassius’s win with a bowl of vanilla ice cream instead of alcohol), that clue us into how these men’s age differences (Cassius at 22, Brown at 28, Cooke at 33, and Malcolm at 37) shape their approaches to the civil rights movement and the idea of Black power, and that are often simultaneously melancholy and funny (Brown making a joke about never being a “fan” of “tight ships,” Cassius hiding a flask from the Nation of Islam security detail). This much dialogue needs strong performances to communicate the contrasting emotions, tensions, and motivations at play between these men, and King amassed the exact right ensemble.
Each actor puts his own spin on men who probably already exist in our imaginations (Will Smith’s Muhammad Ali, Denzel Washington’s Malcolm X), with deliberate performances that swing between loyalty and weariness. Goree and Ben-Adir have the difficult task of embodying men whose speech patterns and body language were incredibly singular, but their performances never feel like caricatures. Ben-Adir is particularly great, playing Malcolm as an open wound who targets his stinging, festering anger toward his friends because he can’t really rail against the spiritual leader who betrayed him. Hodge, after a solid supporting turn earlier this year in The Invisible Man, uses his physicality again here to convey Brown as a man proud of his achievements but also aware that no amount of respectability will change racists’ minds about the humanity of Black people. And Odom, given far more to do here than in last year’s Harriet, brings that scoffing Aaron Burr energy to his version of the sarcastic, self-assured Cooke, so certain that his brand of Black capitalism will be his people’s saving grace. Everyone is solid, and certain scenes between the four men moved me to tears with their quiet beauty, and with what they capture about friendship, trust, and shared devotion. Malcolm readjusting Cassius’s hands as they both kneel to pray toward Mecca. Jim standing between Malcolm X’s overprotective Nation of Islam guards and his friends. Cassius haltingly, fearfully sharing with his friends his anxieties about the ensuing level of fame he’ll be forced to live with as a new champ. “The target’s gonna be on your back,” Cooke advises Cassius when he voices those concerns, but Cassius’s “It was gonna be there anyway” generates no response back. It’s too truthful, and what else is there to really say?
Over the course of the film, the greatest friction develops between Malcolm and Cooke, and One Night in Miami… gives attention to questions about which means of protest or methods of resistance really matter. Does Malcolm encourage Cassius to share news of his conversion for entirely altruistic reasons? Not exactly. Is Sam holding back other Black artists by acquiescing so much to the demands of a white-controlled music industry? Maybe. As viewers, we bring our own knowledge to all this, and that hindsight adds an additional layer of complexity. We know how Malcolm X died, and how Sam Cooke died. We know the lasting effects Malcolm X’s words have had (“We are nonviolent with people who are nonviolent with us” has particular resonance), and the lasting effect Sam Cooke’s lyrics have had (“Oh, there been times that I thought/I couldn’t last for long/But now I think I’m able, to carry on” from “A Change Is Gonna Come”). Is it really appropriate for us to decide which man was wrong, and which man was right? Are we even capable of doing such a thing? These men lived for more than our judgment. The final moments of One Night in Miami… will haunt you, and they’ll remind you: There’s still work to do.
One Night in Miami… is playing in limited release in theaters around the U.S. as of December 25, 2020, and will be available for streaming through Amazon Prime on January 15, 2021.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review of a theatrical release is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. This film was reviewed via a screening link.
Image sources (in order of posting): Amazon Studios, Amazon Studios