One Night in Miami… is a fascinating intellectual exercise that imagines four Black icons in the same room: Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) are men of outsized personalities, charisma, and talent. They fill every room they enter. On that basis alone, Miami is a ceaselessly entertaining film.
But director Regina King and writer Kemp Powers (adapting his play) actually go one better than that: They have these four legends engage in a rich, tension-fueled dialogue about what it means to be a Black celebrity in the Civil Rights era. Is there a right or wrong way to achieve fame and fortune in a segregated society? Do these men have an obligation to lend their hard-earned power to the Cause, and subsequently risk everything they have? This is a film that asks those big questions, and then takes its time allowing these intelligent, thoughtful characters arrive at their own answers.
Most of Miami takes place on the evening of February 25, 1964. Cassius Clay scores a massive upset over Sonny Liston to become the world heavyweight champion. Cooke, Brown, and X are all in attendance. After the fight, the four men convene in X’s hotel room for an after party. To everyone’s chagrin, X has no booze, no feast, and no women on hand. He just wants a meaningful conversation with these superstars while they’re all in the same room.
Turns out, all four men are difficult junctures in their personal and professional lives. Malcolm X confronts the extensive infidelities of Elijah Muhammad (Jerome A. Wilson), his leader and father-figure within the Nation of Islam. Brown has grown weary of simply being a star athlete, and believes he should expand his talents to the film industry. Clay plans to devote himself to the Nation of Islam, but balks at the requisite lifestyle changes and possible impact such a conversion would have on his rising profile. Finally, Cooke has enjoyed durable success with white and black audiences, but he also wonders whether or not his music needs to develop a socio-cultural conscience.
One Night in Miami… never pretends to be non-fiction. These four men were real-life friends, but this particular meeting never happened. Still, it’s so fun–so engrossing–to get lost in this what if. All four men look enough like their respective subjects to pass, but–more importantly–they do an exemplary job embodying the spirit of each person. Goree captures Clay’s infectious swagger and likability, but also his shrewd self-awareness. As Malcolm X, Ben-Adir pivots from Denzel Washington’s sturdy sternness and propulsive ferocity to project a more relaxed, almost laid-back take on the Civil Rights titan. Hodge’s Jim Brown is a cerebral and pensive individual who takes great care to bottle his bubbling temper. And while nobody–and I mean nobody–could or will sing like Sam Cooke, Odom’s masterful performance does enough to make us believe. Take it from someone who loves Cooke’s music: That’s no small praise.
As director, King successfully translates Miami from stage to screen. While much of the action takes place in X’s hotel room, the characters also venture to other locales, and King uses these moments to make the film feel more cinematic. A rooftop scene where the men take in fireworks and contemplate their place the world is particularly beautiful and endearing. Like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Miami embraces its theatrical origins, but it also works hard to give you the experience of watching a movie.
One Night in Miami… made me think of the 1965 meetup between the Beatles and Elvis Presley. It was a stilted, quiet affair–a lot of famous dudes sitting around staring at each other. As a music fanatic, I wanted this moment to be huge. I wanted these men to speak in their shared language of musical genius. I wanted them to change the world, right then and there. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Miami constructs a meetup of incredible people who tackle still-relevant issues. They push each other, and end up challenging us in the process. This is a funny, provocative, moving film, one that exceeds the hype surrounding it.
114 min. R. Amazon Prime.