The two most intriguing words in storytelling are “what if…” In the case of One Night in Miami, a gathering did take place in 1964 that brought together Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, football star Jim Brown, and pop singer Sam Cooke. No one knows for certain what these famous friends discussed in the privacy of a hotel room at a crucial juncture in their lives. That’s where playwright Kemp Powers’s screenplay takes off.
It’s 1964 and Cassius Clay has just defeated Sonny Liston for the World Heavyweight Championship. He’s on top of the world, but instead of attending a big, public blow-out he drives to a motel in a black section of Miami for a quiet celebration with three good friends. He has promised Malcolm X that he will embrace Islam and change his name to Muhammad Ali the next morning …but he doesn’t know that Malcolm has just broken ranks with Elijah Muhammad. The controversial leader needs the boxer’s endorsement, but his sense of fair play won’t permit him to lead his friend up a blind alley.
Jim Brown is an NFL powerhouse but he’s just had a taste of movie stardom and likes it. He can make more money, be just as famous, and not punish his body as he does in every game. Sam Cooke is a best-selling recording artist but he hasn’t completely won over a white fan base. Malcolm thinks his bland songs dodge important issues he ought to be addressing.
Wow. How do you humanize these legendary figures? What actors could be persuasive enough to make you believe them, even if you remember the icons they are depicting? And how do you visualize a one-set stage play so it resembles a movie, not just a set of speeches?
That’s the impressive feat that first-time feature director Regina King and playwright Kemp Powers have pulled off, in league with four supremely talented actors. Eli Goree evokes the verbal braggadocio of Cassius Clay and is equally convincing in the all-important boxing arena. Leslie Odom, Jr., who earned a Tony for his performance in Hamilton, slides into the silken-smooth image of Sam Cooke, bombing onstage before a white audience at the Copacabana nightclub. Aldis Hodge adopts the stone-faced countenance of football star Jim Brown, who knows his worth and has the least self-doubt of these four imposing men.
Kingsley Ben-Adir may have the most daunting challenge, since Malcolm X is such a towering figure and Denzel Washington’s portrayal remains fresh. This film doesn’t depict the speech-making firebrand, although it treads carefully. He can pal around a bit with the other three notables but never loses sight of his goal, to corral Clay while the opportunity lasts. One by one, he engages his famous allies in debates about their role in American life and responsibilities to the black community.
The fact that everything they discuss is still so relevant—if not more urgent than ever—makes this more than a mere exercise in re-creating history. The language crackles and the performances shine. If One Night in Miami can’t deny its origins as a stage play, it can still hold us in its grip through several slow passages and deliver a climactic wallop.
That’s a tribute to the director, writer, and a brace of talented collaborators including cinematographer Tami Reiker, production designers Barry Robison and Page Buckner, film editor Tariq Anwar, and Terence Blanchard’s music. Never do we have reason to doubt the time and place we’ve traveled to in this fascinating film.