Directed by Regina King, in her directorial feature debut, One Night in Miami is written by Kemp Powers who has adapted his own play to fit the big screen. Inspired by true events, the film is set on the evening of 25 February 1964 and tells the fictionalised story of a meeting between icons Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke, who happen to be in the same place and come together to celebrate Clay’s victory over Sonny Liston to become the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion.
Clay, of course, will eventually become Muhammad Ali, and part of the film is based around his decision and ideals to give his life to the Muslim faith, a decision encouraged by Malcolm X, who is already part of the Brotherhood but there’s also many discussions to be had, many pieces of their individual lives to learn about and vital decisions to take, regarding where each of their responsibilities lie and how they could change the world for all black people, with this moment being a catalyst for better things to come.
King’s film individually introduces each character, giving us an insight into who they are, and what they’re doing in their lives. While the four we focus on were, of course, already famous or on their way to being successful, it doesn’t take anything away from the racism they continued to face, or the need to fight for basic civil rights or the ideals they were hoping to live by. I haven’t seen the stage play, but would love to, and in the early stages the narrative felt a little sun-kissed, but it gets deeper, more real and reflective of then and – sadly – even today.
Kemp’s script doesn’t shy away from the big questions, especially once in its stride, with comments on religion, what it’s like to become a black Muslim, insightful monologues on white people using black music for their benefit and so much more. It’s obviously political, with significant race-related debates regarding the era, a hopeful yet desperate look to the future and while sporadically a little too on the nose, as it’s a fictional account, these are minor distractions because Power’s words takes you to places, it sells the reality convincingly and reminds us historically who these men were.
As well as personal stories of personal strength and change, alongside a definite emphasis from Malcolm X sharing his understanding that we need black talent to speak out and share their stories. He’s clearly encouraging his friends to share their personal culture, and not be fearful of standing out for any reason, especially when it makes its mark. It’s powerful contemplation and raises a lot of questions to consider.
But One Night in Miami isn’t all intense discussion, it finds a balance between the seriousness and the humour, with a lot of that coming from Eli Goree’s Cassius Clay. His depiction of Ali is effortless, his comedy and strength shine through and he’s as funny as the clips we see of him today. Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X is solid as well, he’s the one holding (and pushing) everyone together and realising the magnitude of the situation. Aldis Hodge’s Jim Brown offers reality, he’s a former NFL star who was just becoming a film star at the time, he sees both sides of the arguments and isn’t afraid to question Malcolm’s intentions, and neither is Leslie Odom Jr.’s Sam Cooke, a tremendous singer/songwriter carving out his way in the world.
There’s easy chemistry between the quartet, with an equal measure of mistrust and perception throughout. Tension and passion are at the forefront, alongside heartfelt confessions, and compelling performances. Regina King impressively lets the actors do their thing, which works for something that feels very play-like, and she loves an aerial shot when necessary, paying a tribute to them from above, as if we were watching those of the group no longer with us and admiring the moment.
One Night in Miami is a smart tribute to these iconic black men who’ve left an indelible mark on history. It’s a story worth telling, as we look inside their characters and share parts of their stories, delves into their religion, beliefs, and ideals. It’s also a reminder to continue to amplify those voices, even today, because this is a world we can make better, and more equal, for everyone.