'One Night in Miami' is a fly-on-the-wall to an historic gathering 

click to enlarge Kingsley Ben-Adir, Aldis Hodge, Eli Goree, Leslie Odom Jr., and company in "One Night in Miami." - PHOTO COURTESY AMAZON STUDIOS
  • Kingsley Ben-Adir, Aldis Hodge, Eli Goree, Leslie Odom Jr., and company in "One Night in Miami."

Oscar-winning actress Regina King makes her feature directorial debut with the drama “One Night in Miami,” adapted by Kemp Powers (who’s having an incredible year, having co-directed and written the screenplay for Pixar’s “Soul”), from his own 2013 play of the same name. It premiered at this year's mostly virtual Toronto International Film Festival and is now available to stream on Amazon Prime.

The film centers on the fateful night of February 25, 1964 when friends Muhammad Ali — then still going by Cassius Clay — Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown gathered together in a Miami hotel room to celebrate Clay’s victory in his bout against Sonny Liston earlier that evening. The narrative is a blending of fact and fiction — these legends did actually gather that night, but how the evening played out is entirely the product of Kemp’s imagination.

Prior to the central action of the narrative, we’re briefly introduced to each of the men separately, as all four are facing some major life transitions.

Brown (Aldis Hodge) is a revered football star, but as a Black man he can’t avoid discrimination even by those who are quick to celebrate his achievements on the field. Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) recently bombed a gig at the swanky Copacabana nightclub in Manhattan and worries about the trajectory of his career.

Clay (Eli Goree) has suffered defeat at the hands of British boxer Henry Cooper in London, a setback that makes him all the more eager to prove he’s the greatest there is. And with the guidance of Malcolm X as his spiritual mentor, he's also on the verge of converting to Islam. Meanwhile, Malcolm (Kingsley Ben-Adir) frets over his strained relationship with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad and intends to leave the movement, but has concerns about his family’s safety.

The men converge in a room at the Hampton House Motel, one of the few places where Black performers were allowed to stay in the segregated city. They talk about their lives and careers, eventually getting into their differing opinions on their roles in the country’s Civil Rights movement, and their obligations to the cause versus using their success as a pathway to personal liberation.

A heated ideological debate soon emerges, with Malcolm and Cooke on opposing sides and the other men falling somewhere in the middle. They differ on the uses of their fame, what it costs and what it provides them, and whether that success only further entrenches them in the system that’s built on white oppression.

Powers’ talkative screenplay does take a bit to get going, though the small scale of the narrative is bursting with big ideas. Like “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” — another recent film adaptation of a powerhouse stage play — large portions of “One Night in Miami” are confined to a single setting. As such, the film doesn’t always escape the stagey feel that betrays the story’s origins as a play. But it never feels contrived, and as a director King finds ways to expand the scope of the film just enough.

Most importantly, Regina King has cast her film expertly, and the ensemble fires on all cylinders. The four actors have a great chemistry, and their shared friendship and history together is believable. It’s through their camaraderie and conflict that the film is given its crackling energy.

Each actor gives a terrific performance, but for my money the MVP is Ben-Adir. He brings a prickly humanity and roiling internal conflict to his portrayal of the towering figure of Malcolm X. It’s a testament to how good he is and how much he makes the role his own that his work suffers nothing in comparison to Denzel Washington’s iconic portrayal in Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic about the civil rights leader.

We also get to enjoy Odom Jr.’s considerable pipes (probably most widely known to audiences from his turn as Aaron Burr in the original Broadway cast of “Hamilton”) in a few music sequences, which is merely an added bonus.

In its best moments, “One Night in Miami” offers viewers a chance to see these legendary figures simply as men, as human beings. Guided by King, the performers make these icons into rich, complicated characters. It’s a triumphant debut for the filmmaker, and one that makes me eager to see where she’ll turn her eye to next.

“One Night in Miami”
(R), Directed by Regina King
Now streaming on Amazon Prime

Adam Lubitow is a freelance film critic for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to Rebecca Rafferty, CITY's life editor, at [email protected].

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