On a warm night in February of 1964 in Miami, the knowing and self-professed “The Greatest” Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) defeated Sonny Liston to capture his first World Heavyweight Championship. A 7-1 underdog, Clay’s win was hardly expected, but it also somehow felt preordained, a necessary step towards his domination of the sport and then the world. Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), a close friend of Clay’s and his spiritual guide who would lead him to the Nation of Islam and his soon name change after the win, was there. So was singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and NFL superstar Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). And when it was all over, when Clay became the greatest, the four close friends celebrated the win together at a local Miami motel. What transpired on that evening — an evening that did actually happen — belongs to both history and its central foursome, but its now imagined in a film that crackles with all the hopes and fears and dreams and possibilities of the men it tracks.
Arriving as the directorial debut of Oscar and Emmy-winning actress Regina King and based on the play of the same title by Kemp Powers (who also wrote the script here), One Night in Miami… mostly takes place in a single location: that aforementioned segregated motel room. And King, for the most part, adds some solid visual touches to keep the film from being completely visually flat. But as one might expect from a movie based on a play and directed by a famous actor, dialogue and performances are the driving force, here. The castings are remarkable: Everyone looks close but not too close to the famous figures they’re playing, which allows the audience to get up in the verisimilitude of the story without being possibly distracted by prosthetics or overt resemblance.
Dropping its title card in at the smooth twenty-minute mark, the film first sets out to lay out each of the four main characters in a vignette to setup the underlying tensions they’ll later bring to the extended conversation at the center of the film. (For Brown, it’s the cognitive dissonance of racist white people cheering for him only on the football field. For Clay, it’s the stubborn need to prove himself.) As a result of this extended prologue, the cast is huge: Most of the supporting roles, like Lance Reddick as X’s bodyguard, Brother Kareem, and Michael Imperioli as Clay’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, have a relatively small amount of screen time. But there isn’t a weak link in King’s ensemble.
That centerpiece discussion eventually does get heated, with at least one of the men storming out of the room rather than listening to another word their friend has to say. But before delving into the sensitive topics of colorism, separatism and weighing economic self-interest against the good of the community, there’s a breezy segment that gives each of the main figures a depth of personality that transcends — and is informed by — their public personas. All four of the leads are great fun to watch, but Ben-Adir is particularly impressive and charming as Malcolm X, whose legendary militarism is belied by his depiction here as a buttoned-up family man whose suggestion that they stay in and eat ice cream instead of going out and getting drunk gets groans and jeers from his more party-centric pals.
Through these characterizations, One Night in Miami… offers up a portrait not only of the conflicts and contradictions of the civil rights movement at that exact moment in history but also the nuances of Black masculinity then and now. Certain details are shoehorned in almost by necessity: It lands like a ton of bricks when X remarks, “I’m working on my autobiography,” though the film works the statement in about as naturally as it can. And by naturally, it’s more that the film tries to tidily fit them into biopic conventions (which includes a little too much winking towards future events, for my taste). The film overall does also leave a little to be longed for, as it has so much potential to, in some ways, explode these mens’ legacies in order to get at the men underneath them, yet the endeavor, overall, can feel a little timid.
Meanwhile though, King does emphasize some of the biographical details more than others in the epilogue showing how that night affected each of these iconic men. But these expository elements mostly just serve as fuel for the follow-up questions that’ll likely be sparked by the film, which have the possibility of running the gamut, from lighthearted (“What historical figures would you like to spend an evening with?”) to heavier (“What is the obligation of an artist to the community that raised them?”). Yet with no theater lobbies to hold that discussion, here’s just to hoping that the audience has a place for their dialogue. Though a little uneven and trapped by its neat, timid conventions, One Night in Miami… tackles weighty themes with a bold ensemble and a lively ebullience that’s able to find some heft in its smooth talkiness.
One Night in Miami… screened at the 2020 Hamptons Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release the film into Select Theaters on December 25 before Amazon Prime Video on January 15