One Night in Miami” puts us in a Florida hotel room where four friends laugh, cry, rage, banter and hold court. They just also happen to be four very important Black icons.
Boxer Cassius Clay (played by Eli Goree), NFL running back Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and controversial activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) are viewed less as legends and more as down-to-earth human beings in director Regina King’s directorial debut (★★★★ out of four; rated R; in theaters Friday, streaming Jan. 15 on Amazon Prime).
Kemp Powers (“Soul”) adapts his own 2013 play – which imagines what happened the night of Feb. 25, 1964, when Clay won the heavyweight championship – and it boasts a wide-ranging conversation about being Black in America in the 1960s that’s funny, entertaining and revelatory, so much so it almost feels like they could also be talking about today.
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Not yet Muhammad Ali, the influential supernova everybody knows, here Clay is just a 22-year-old rising star these other cultural figures orbit. He organizes a get-together between his buds at Miami’s Hampton House, the choice getaway for Black celebrities of the time, and the news drops that Cassius wants to join the Nation of Islam, mentored by Malcolm, his “spiritual support.”Sam, who’s itching to party, and Jim aren’t convinced this is a great idea for the new champ’s rising profile – mainly because of Malcolm’s views, including calling the white man a “devil” – and it sparks a heated discussion among them about their individual roles in the civil rights movement, mainly between Malcolm and Sam.
Not unlike the real punches thrown earlier, Sam and Malcolm throw metaphorical haymakers at each other. Sam wonders where the guy he used to know went, while Malcolm argues that the singer should be using his immense voice “for the cause” of helping Black people instead of entertaining mostly white crowds. “You’re a monkey dancing for an organ grinder to them,” Malcolm says, one of many blows that land as Cassius tries to smooth things over.
King maintains the stage quality of the play while also showing these men in grander settings – Clay playing with his opponent in front of a packed arena, Cooke performing in front of an enraptured crowd – yet it’s the intimacy that makes “One Night in Miami” great. Outside of Malcolm’s second-floor hotel room, they’re famous; inside, they’re simply dudes with differences of opinion who need to hug it out.
She’s also perfectly cast the movie with talented actors who bring these icons to life, especially Ben-Adir and Odom. A Tony winner for “Hamilton,” Odom matches Cooke’s sweet, earnest vocals and also gives him a fiery personality. Ben-Adir’s Malcolm is also multidimensional: The Muslim leader weighs what it’d mean to leave the Nation of Islam, is paranoid about people following him, and yet is also a photography nerd who’s absolutely gleeful his close friend is now “king of the world.”
Goree (“Riverdale”) is the freshest face playing arguably the biggest name: He gives Cassius an infectious, flamboyant machismo without sacrificing the turmoil of a young man facing a huge life decision. And Hodge’s Jim is the strong, quiet conscience of the group, a football star rethinking his own career who sums up the surreality of the moment: “This is one strange (expletive) night.”