One Night in Miami is not a flashy movie. It’s easy to see how viewers expecting a film featuring Muhammad Ali, Malcom X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown to be this dynamic cinematic experience full of electric and unforgettable moments. That’s not this film.
Instead, it’s more of an intimate, stripped down glimpse at four friends dropping all pretenses and having honest conversations with each other. This is a night without the crowds, hangers-on and constant demands of their status.
Cassius Clay (Eli Goree, Race) has just won the heavyweight boxing championship and is set to celebrate his big moment with pals Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), NFL superstar Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge, Straight Outta Compton) and King of Soul crooner Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.).
This is a powerhouse assemblage of some of the major players in black culture at the time touching the political (Malcolm X), sports and entertainment realms. Kemp Powers (Soul) adapts his 2013 stage play envisioning what happened on Feb. 25, 1964.
It’s a fascinating “what if?” scenario as these four future icons ponder civil rights, racial inequality, their positions of influence and potential legacies.
Goree and Ben-Adir have the more challenging roles considering the numerous big screen portrayals of Ali and X over the years. Denzel Washington’s Oscar nominated portrayal of X is considered the yardstick and Will Smith’s fiery 2001 turn as Ali also earned him an Oscar nod. Ironically, Smith lost to Washington that year as he got his long overdue Best Actor award for Training Day.
In a lot of films this would be a tough obstacle for the two less household name actors to overcome. Here, it works in their favor as Goree and Ben-Adir aren’t asked to play the larger than life personas with their supernova like charisma.
Instead, they’re tasked with the façade-free, real versions of Clay and X, the versions most familiar to their inner circle. They more than hold their end up without feeling stuck in the shadows of other performances. Ben-Adir skillfully shows how X handles his growing dissatisfaction with the Nation’s leadership, his desire to see his friends reach their most influential potential and increasing concern for his safety.
One Night in Miami represents Director Regina King’s first feature film. King built her experience directing episodes of TV series like Insecure, This Is Us, Shameless, The Good Doctor and Greenleaf, which helped hone her storytelling perspective of making small moments feel significant.
Miami’s play roots DNA are evident throughout. Characters walk “off stage” to allow for different pairings yet King makes these transitions feel natural instead of clunky holdovers from its original format. Lance Reddick (John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) and Christian Magby (Pitch Perfect 3) provide enjoyable supporting roles as X’s Nation of Islam security staff.
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Odom Jr. has had a big couple of years. Similar to his sizzling performance in Hamilton, Odom Jr. simply seizes the screen with a magnetic turn.
At 5’10”, Cooke was shorter in stature than his three friends that all stood at least 6’2″. Odom similarly is smaller than most of his co-stars, but in the crucial scene in the film when Cooke and X go back and forth, he dominates the screen as if he were a 7-footer.
Hodge plays Brown as a stoic, thoughtful athlete quietly seething at the injustice he sees on a daily basis. This is a stark contrast to the current day Brown, who perhaps was replaced by a pod person that happily plays celebrity endorser for Donald Trump.
King doesn’t rush the moments and establishes the various moods at play from the excitement of Clay’s victory to more serious conversations. This is when the film is at its best as the four start clashing over their ideals and how best to represent and uplift the black race.
Given the state of the country, it’s not surprising how relevant these conversations still feel today.
Naturally that led to some interesting considerations about who would be in a hotel room in 2021: Corey Booker, Patrick Mahomes, The Weeknd and Ryan Coogler? Serena Williams, Beyoncé, Zendaya and Ava DuVernay? There’s some fun combinations that sound like the basis for an intriguing series.
The final act is amazing and is one of the better conclusions to a film I’ve seen in a year.
One Night In Miami doesn’t need lavish, expensive sets and showy cinematography. King is a confident filmmaker assured of her cast and provides them a tremendous platform to show their immense talent.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Photo Credit: Amazon Studios