One Night in Miami... puts together four prominent African-American men, each at a particular point in their lives. While a fictional story and not quite able to escape its stage roots, One Night in Miami... still holds the viewers attention as these four men struggle, argue and laugh with their roles in American life and their community.
After brief scenes of each man facing situations that shape or shake their worldview, we go to February 25, 1964. Here, young boxing talent Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) meets up with his spiritual mentor, Nation of Islam Minister Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). The Brother Minister has convinced Cassius to join the controversial religious sect and announce it after Clay's fight with Sonny Liston.
Also coming to the fight is Cassius' friend and Malcolm's frenemy singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.) while their mutual friend, NFL superstar Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) will be giving boxing commentary. After Clay wins the match he gets Brown and Cooke to join him and the Brother Minister at their hotel.
Here, over the course of the night, the four men get into various discussions over their roles in the growing Civil Rights Movement, with Malcolm X and Cooke being the most divided. The former insists Cooke use his skills to advocate for action and not perform what he thinks of as soft, light music for majority-white audiences; the latter insists it is only through primarily economic freedom that will bring about advancement to the race. As each man attempts to explain himself and balance the joy of life, they each in the end make separate decisions that will impact their lives and careers.
One Night in Miami... is a speculative film in placing these four distinct legends together on this important night. However, it is more likely that in Kemp Powell's adaptation of his own play, they served as avatars for the state of African-Americans and the paths open to them to take in claiming their full rights. The two dominant figures here are Malcolm X and Sam Cooke, who often come into conflict over how best to move the African-American community forward.
I would argue that given the dominance of both Ben-Adir and Odom, Jr. in One Night in Miami... at times Goree and Hodge get lost as the Brother Minister and Mr. Soul battle it out. It would not be surprising to see Ben-Adir and Odom, Jr. receive recognition for their performances as both are exceptional. Despite being submitted for Supporting, I would argue it is Odom, Jr. who is the clear standout of the two.
It is more than just capturing Cooke's ease and confidence but you also see someone at times eager to please, at times filled with barely concealed rage. His final scene as he premieres A Change Is Gonna Come on The Tonight Show is chilling. It is enhanced by editor Tariq Anwar, who mixes his performance with hints of the futures of Malcolm X, Mohammad Ali and Jim Brown (the sole surviving figure as of this writing). Ben-Adir at times sounds more like former President Barack Obama than Malcolm X in his cadence, but he has excellent moments too, such as when recounting how Cooke managed to hold an audience in the palm of his hand just by his voice.
Goree had some of Ali's inflections too, but curiously, neither he or the Brother Minister had that swagger or fire in One Night in Miami..., almost as if director Regina King had them be surprisingly restrained, muted. Of particular note is when the then-Cassius Clay wins: Goree doesn't have that mixture of swagger and delight in his declarations of being both "the greatest" and being "so pretty". Still, on the whole King proved herself an able director, leading her cast to fully formed performances.
She even had a few moments of comedy thanks to Christian Magby's eager Nation of Islam member Jamaal, who was simply too much of a fanboy to keep to strict NOI routines.
One Night in Miami... also has a wonderful closing song, Speak Now, that sounds like the perfect companion piece to Cooke's A Change is Gonna Come, one of the Greatest Songs of the Twentieth Century.
The film can't quite escape its stage roots in that certain scenes do play as if performed on stage, particularly whenever our quartet is together in Malcolm X's hotel room. Despite this, One Night in Miami... is a well-crafted film with strong performances that tells a fascinating "what-if" story. It's a story that is both of its time and ours.
Sam Cooke: 1931-1964
Malcolm X: 1925-1965
Mohammad Ali: 1942-2016
Jim Brown: Born 1936