Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke all check into a motel room. It’s almost hard to imagine such legends sharing the same space, but of course, they did. And on the night of February 25, 1964, after Ali – who was then still known as Cassius Clay – became the Heavyweight Champion of the World after defeating Sonny Liston, the four men gathered together to celebrate. This real event was the impetus for Kemp Powers‘ play, and now Regina King‘s film One Night in Miami, a fictionalized retelling of that night that feels very real.
It can be tricky for an actor to portray a real-life figure, especially one who was very well known. Which means the four leads – and yes, they’re all the lead here – of One Night in Miami had some big shoes to fill. That they all do amazing work across the board is a testament to how wildly talented these actors are. Kingsley Ben-Adir is Malcolm X, playing the Nation of Islam minister as soft-spoken and bookish when he needs to be, but also prone to precise outbursts. This is not the fiery Malcolm X delivering a sermon – it’s the private Malcolm, and Ben-Adir manages to fully make the character his own. Denzel Washington famously played the man in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, but you won’t be thinking of Washington’s performance here – you’ll be completely in tune with Ben-Adir’s anguish as he portrays Malcolm as a man trying to make a point while also becoming more and more certain that his days are numbered.
Eli Goree is Cassius Clay, the man who would become Muhammad Ali, and Goree perhaps has the most difficult task of the bunch. Ali was known for his larger-than-life personality and braggadocio, and to play such a figure who was so publicly broad runs the risk of mimicry or impersonation. Ali was, by nature, over-the-top, but how do play him without seeming over-the-top? Goree manages it. He nails down Ali’s vocal mannerisms and the boxer’s light-on-his-feet physicality. But he also taps into Ali’s insecurities and makes the legend seem all too human.
Leslie Odom Jr., of Hamilton fame, is singer Sam Cooke, and Odom Jr. has plenty of fun with the role, playing Cooke as the member of the group with the most swagger, and most care-free nature. But as the film progresses, even Sam’s nonchalant facade begins to chip, and Odom Jr. perfectly encapsulates the man’s inner workings. It helps that Odom Jr. is a hell of a singer, too.
And Aldis Hodge is football legend Jim Brown, playing Brown on the cusp of quitting his sports career to pursue acting. Of all the performers, Hodge has the most room to maneuver around in his part here – he’s not going for a dead-on portrayal of Brown, but rather his own interpretation of the man. And the actor, who feels like one of those performers on the cusp of becoming a huge star, brings a quiet-yet-imposing dignity to the part.
Before these men meet up in that motel room in Miami, we meet them a little earlier, when they’re not exactly having the best days. Ali is first seen in the ring fighting boxer Henry Cooper, and while the future champ would win that fight, we catch him at a moment where his boastfulness gets the better of him and Cooper is able to land a left hook that sends Ali reeling into the ropes. Sam Cooke is playing the Copacabana, where he ends up bombing during his set, completely ignored by the White audience. Malcolm X is in turmoil as he considers leaving the Nation of Islam due to the indiscretions and infidelities of Elijah Muhammad. And Jim Brown experiences a case of smiling racism in his home town, where a white local who was so warm and accommodating to him then cheerfully refuses to let Brown into his house on account of the color of Brown’s skin.
King, making her feature directorial debut – she’s directed TV before this – handles these early set-up scenes with grace and finesse, drawing us into the individual lives of these men before bringing them all together. These moments also open the movie up a bit, as a large chunk of it will be spent in one location. And after introducing us to our players, One Night in Miami jumps to that fateful day in February. Ali wins the fight – something that no one was expecting, apparently not even Ali. And all Sam and Jim want to do is celebrate. Sam in particular is hoping for some female companionship during the afterparty.
But that’s not what happens. Instead, they all end up back at Malcolm’s motel room – which Sam privately proclaims to be a dump. And it becomes apparent very quickly that this is not going to be the rowdy celebration some of the men were hoping for, especially when Malcolm’s idea of “refreshments” are two pints of ice cream and no alcohol to speak of. And this isn’t just a friendly get-together – Malcolm has ulterior motives. For one thing, he’s there to see Ali officially join the Nation of Islam. And for another, he has some important things to say to his friends about the world they currently find themselves in.
As Malcolm sees it, these men, who are giants in their respective fields, should be using their fame to help empower Black people. And while none of the men disagree with this statement, on principle, they don’t always see eye-to-eye with Malcolm – especially Sam, whom Malcolm accuses on more than one occasion of placating to whites. “You will never be loved by the people you’re trying to win over,” he tells the singer, and adding later: “This is too important a time to be wasting a brilliant and creative mind on pandering.”
But Sam doesn’t see it that way. As far as he’s concerned, running his own music label and working with Black artists is all the empowerment he needs. “Everybody talks about how they want a piece of the pie – well I don’t,” he tells Malcolm while recounting a story about how he let the Rolling Stones record a cover of one of his Black artist’s songs – a deal that resulted in huge sums of cash for the artist. “I want the recipe.”
As the night wears on, each of these men will laugh, joke, argue, cry, almost come to blows, and ultimately grow closer. The scaffolding of the stage play that inspired this film isn’t exactly hidden – the film isn’t stagey, per se, but the limited location and the small cast often reminds you that this same story could very well be playing out on stage. But King’s direction – which is exacting, knowing exactly when to pull back and exactly when to get up in her actor’s faces – and the dynamite performances keep One Night in Miami on its feet. As does a show-stopper of a flashback where Sam enlists an angry crowd in helping him perform “Chain Gang” when the power at a venue goes out. The crowd fluidly transforms from annoyed to enraptured as they stomp their feet to a beat that Sam beautifully sings over.
While it’s great to watch all four actors play off each other in the same room, some of the best moments here arise when King allows her cast to split up, such as when Ali and Sam have a heart-to-heart in Sam’s car, or when Malcolm has a small emotional breakdown in front of Jim, pleading with him to understand where he’s coming from, stressing that these famous men should use their fame as weapons against oppression. “We’re not anyone’s weapons,” Jim says, almost angrily. Malcolm tearfully replies: “You need to be, Jimmy, for us to win.” Ben-Adir is particularly superb in these moments when Malcolm seems tired and emotionally spent. As one character succinctly tells him: “Taking the world on your shoulders is bad for your health.”
One Night in Miami never once feels preachy, or overly speechy. The conversations seem natural, as does the chemistry between these performers. We truly get the sense that they all know and care for each other, and even when they’re on the verge of fighting, the respect and love they all share comes burning through. It’s impossible not to become engrossed with what we’re seeing; we want to spend as much time with these guys as we possibly can, and when the film fades to darkness, we’re sorry to see them go.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10
Cool Posts From Around the Web: