One Night in Miami documents a single night in 1964 when Malcolm X, boxer Cassius Clay (who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali), singer Sam Cooke, and football player Jim Brown gathered in a Miami motel room to discuss their status as Black celebrities and their role in the civil rights movement. In truth, each of these men were in Miami to celebrate Clay’s heavyweight world championship the night the film supposedly took place; their discussions in the motel room, however, are fictitious. One Night in Miami needs neither strict historical rigour nor story to be a winning portrayal of four men who defined the music, athletics, and civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Screenwriter Kemp Powers adapted One Night in Miami from his play of the same name. His story is simple and focused. We’re first introduced to these men’s individual achievements and adversities in the early 1960s. Malcolm X is a family man terrified that his tenuous standing in the Nation of Islam will cause him harm, and hoping his recruitment of star boxer Cassius Clay into the organization will save him. Singer Sam Cooke and football player Jim Brown are pushing the boundaries of their professions, yet both face their own unique forms of racial discrimination. And Cassius Clay is on the top of the world after winning the heavyweight boxing belt, but he is apprehensive about revealing his Islamic faith.
The rest of the film follows these four men arguing and cogitating about their philosophical ideals and palpable experiences of racism, activism, fame, and progress.
Malcom invites the three others into his humble Miami motel room under the impression they will get together for a quick pre-game before a night in Miami celebrating Clay’s landmark victory. Yet, Malcolm reveals he actually didn’t invite any other guests, bought ice cream instead of alcohol, and insists they spend the night reflecting on their achievements. The rest of the film follows these four men arguing and cogitating about their philosophical ideals and palpable experiences of racism, activism, fame, and progress.
The central verbal conflict emerges between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke. Malcolm pressures Sam to use his platform as a premier African-American singer to extend the civil rights movement and perhaps write protest songs; a defensive and hurt Sam argues that his financial autonomy is an inspiration in and of itself. At the same time, there’s great nuance to Malcolm and Sam’s relationship, as scenes later in the film spotlight. One Night in Miami joins the ranks of 12 Angry Men and Glengarry Glen Ross on the list of exceptional films adapted from plays and set in one room. It follows the winning formula of combining memorable performances, insightful and riveting dialogue, and a tad of directorial flair.
These men are not historical figures having a formal debate, but rather friends who are unafraid to challenge the importance of one another’s accomplishments.
Each actor has a unique and complex challenge to render American icons into the distinct world of One Night in Miami. They all succeed by expertly displaying their character’s relatable and specific human characteristics. Canadian actor Eli Goree brings the giddiness and magnetism that young Cassius Clay was famous for, and he even nails Clay’s Kentucky accent. Leslie Odom Jr. (from Hamilton fame) extends his vocal range and illustrates Sam Cooke’s pure charisma in a few memorable soul music senses, while also depicting the character’s subtle insecurities. Regrettably, Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown is given the least to do in the screenplay, yet his grizzled prowess, coupled with a few scenes of tenderness, cannot be missed.
But it’s Kingsley Ben-Adir’s performance as Malcom X that makes One Night in Miami truly exceptional. Ben-Adir has a near impossible task of portraying one of the most documented civil rights leaders who was already cinematically canonized by Denzel Washington in the 1992 classic Malcolm X. Ben-Adir succeeds by portraying Malcom’s acute anxieties about his personal safety, the status of Black America, and interacting with three other men. He has such raw intellectual power, yet is so wiry next to the world’s greatest athletes, and he desperately wants to converse and challenge men who are far more interested in just partying the night away.
…while Malcom is a moralistic and didactic character, the film is not. Rather, it allows us to simply hear, understand, and sympathize with these men’s personal and political ideals.
Director Regina King and screenwriter Keith Powers talked about how they wanted One Night In Miami’s characters to be vulnerable, breakable, and layered. Each of the four leads shows their character’s historical salience, but also their distinct humanity. These men are not historical figures having a formal debate, but rather friends who are unafraid to challenge the importance of one another’s accomplishments. This can both feel like a debate between four friends and the most important conversation in the history of America.
There’s an important distinction to be made here: while Malcom is a moralistic and didactic character, the film is not. One Night in Miami doesn’t take sides with any of its characters and doesn’t seek to define what constitutes true activism. Rather, it allows us to simply hear, understand, and sympathize with these men’s personal and political ideals. It is an artistically compelling and necessary exploration of the trepidations, vulnerabilities, and triumphs of four of the most important men from the 1960s.