What happens when four of the most iconic Black men in history get together to celebrate an unforeseen victory in Miami on the 25th of February in 1964? This question inspires the premise of One Night In Miami, adapted by Kemp Power from his own play and brought to the screen by the amazing Regina King, making her feature directorial debut.
The fictionalized story takes place the actual evening that Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., achieved a historic win over heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. To celebrate this occasion, Malcolm X (portrayed by Kingsley Ben-Adir), has a gettogether of the brightest and most celebrated young Black celebrities. Invited to join the boxer and the civil rights activist in the gathering are NFL superstar Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and the King of Soul, Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr). What the men thought would be a night of debauchery and spirits turns into an insightful, volatile conversation on race, the movement, and personal accountability.
King has been directing for the small screen for a while, so it’s not a surprise that she would transition this beloved play into such a thoughtful film. Everything is done purposefully and with intention. The characters’ introduction sets the table for the tension when the film centers on the discussion of race. The cinematography by Tami Reiker gives the audience an insight that fame and Blackness come with a different responsibility, especially during the 1960s.
We are immediately reminded that no matter how successful one is, your skin color is front and center. What makes One Night in Miami so great is that we get to see something that we as Black people state all the time: we are not monolithic. Here you have four phenomenally successful men at the intersection of race, success, and responsibility. Muhammad Ali, who is coming to terms with his spirituality while reaching the top of his athletic career. Malcolm is coming to terms with the fact that his mentor is not the man he believed him to be. Jim Brown realizes that he is just a commodity. Sam Cooke is being challenged on his authenticity. Those conversations took place. The part the public didn’t see are the conflicts.
All of these themes work because of the performances. The standouts for me are Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown and Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X. Brown was the most famous football player in America. People cheered for him on Sunday but didn’t want him in their living rooms on Monday. Hodge had the challenge of portraying a man known to be macho, but he also gives us insight into his perils. There is a scene in the film where he confronts Malcolm over how he has treated Sam Cooke. He explains to him that Sam understands business. The scene isn’t long, but Hodge’s demeanor is stern but in a controlled way. The decision to go with a direct sternness is more impactful than shouting. He has several moments like that in the film, building to a complete person, not just an idol.
The hardest challenge was given to Kingsley Ben-Aldir. Malcolm X is an icon, and after Denzel Washington’s award-nominated performance in Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic, every portrayal since then seems to pale in comparison. However, Ben-Aldir found his way. Malcolm is struggling. He’s lost his mentor, and Black America has embraced Martin Luther King, Jr. Ben-Adir is giving us a Malcolm that is scared, and he needs these men to inform him that things will be okay. We often forget that our icons are human, and this portrayal shows us a very vulnerable Malcolm.
Honorable mention goes to Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke. We know that he’s an outstanding singer, but we forget that he’s a skillful actor. The scenes between Odom and Ben-Adir are some of the most tumultuous in the film with regards to the dialogue. In the role of Sam Cooke, Odom is a very fitting sparring partner to Ben-Adir’s Malcolm.
The best takeaway from One Night in Miami is that the men needed each other. There wasn’t a success guide in America for Black men. There wasn’t anyone they could call to help them stand up for their rights while enjoying success. Even more importantly: how much personal responsibility does one have as a Black person towards their community? All those questions are still front and center today. Art has a way of being influenced by life, or vice versa. This story may be fictional, but the themes are contemporary.