On a warm February 1964 night in Miami, self-professed “The Greatest” (a distinction that’s still hard to argue with, even so many decades on) Muhammad Ali defeated Sonny Liston to capture his first World Heavyweight Championship. A 7-to-1 underdog, Ali’s win was hardly expected, but it also somehow felt preordained, a necessary step towards his domination of the sport and then the world. Malcolm X, a close friend of Ali’s and his spiritual guide who would lead him to the Nation of Islam soon after the win, was there. So was soul singer Sam Cooke and NFL superstar Jim Brown. And when it was all over, when Ali became the greatest, the four close friends celebrated the win together at a local Miami hotel. What transpired on that evening — an evening that, yes, really did happen — belongs to both history and its central foursome, but is now vividly imagined in
Directed by Regina King (already an Oscar and Emmy winner for her acting) and adapted by Kemp Powers (who first launched the project as a stage play), “One Night in Miami” is both a formidable debut for King (who has previously directed a slew of episodes of high-profile television series) and a strong argument for Powers’ medium-crossing skills. It’s also one of the year’s best acting showcases, including turns from Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X, Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke, Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown, and Eli Goree as Cassius Clay. (While the boxer changed his name to Muhammad Ali soon after that first Liston fight, the character of Cassius Clay is just that, a character in the film, and as he’s known by Cassius throughout the majority of the film’s running time, he’ll be referred to as such throughout this review.)
The film opens in the lead up to the big fight, introducing each of its four central characters at various points in their lives being, as Cassius will later term it, “young, Black, righteous, famous, unapologetic.” Each of them is facing racism in many forms, from a shocking experience Jim endures at the hands of a seemingly genial neighbor to the white crowds of the famous Copacabana streaming out the moment Sam takes the stage. They are also struggling with the nature of their individual legacies, as Cassius prepares to make a massive change in his personal life, just as Malcolm is planning his own alterations to his.
After the fight and Cassius’ surprise win, the foursome gather to celebrate, and what unfolds is a vivid, reflective chamber piece in which each man becomes emblematic of themselves and the greater changes that are coming to the world. It’s a film that requires hairpin tonal shifts, as the guys’ bonding turns from bonhomie to bruising allegations and back again with increasing regularity. King is more than up to the task, as is her cast, and the film vacillates between feelings and tones with a chatty, very real ease. (King and Powers both serve as executive producers on the film, alongside producers Jess Wu Calder and Keith Calder of Snoot Entertainment and Jody Klein of ABKCO.)
“One Night in Miami” (and both King and Powers) exhibits great affection for its central characters, but it never feels like a hagiographic exercise. That bent extends to not just the more pointed of revelations that unfold in its second half, the more biting of conversations that rage through the foursome, but in the film’s more easy-going first act. Swaggering Cassius can’t resist a mirror (or a boisterous admission of his own handsomeness), Sam doesn’t make any bones about perking up at the mention of ladies, and a sequence in which Malcolm’s idea of a good time (lots of self-reflection and two boxes of vanilla ice cream) is a constant source of amusement to his more party-hungry pals.
While it’s Cassius’ imminent conversion to Islam that centers the film, more so than even his big win against Liston which serves as its celebratory kickoff, it’s Malcolm X’s growing concern about his life (and the possibility of his life after the Nation of Islam) that drives it. As Malcolm, Kingsley Ben-Adir is given arguably the film’s meatiest role — and it’s telling that he’s credited first among such a deep field of contenders — one that grows in both power and pathos as the film winds on. So too does Odom’s performance, eventually turning his Sam Cooke into Malcolm’s match, with the “Hamilton” breakout walking away with the film’s most emotional conclusion.
Hodge, who brings deep humanity to all of his roles, was an inspired pick to play Jim Brown, easily bridging the gap between his physical strength (the actor appears to have bulked up to best approximate the football star’s formidable shoulders) and an emotional inner life torn between ambition and humility. And Goree, the least well-known among the film’s stars, offers up a bouncy, boastful Cassius who hides some deep reservations and major fears underneath all that swagger. Comparing both Goree and Ben-Adir’s work here to certain predecessors — like Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” and Will Smith in Michael Mann’s “Ali” — makes for a fine exercise, but both actors bring entirely new dimension to their roles.
Even with so much material (and so many personalities!) to work through, King is also compelled to capture the texture of the evening — a moment in which young Nation of Islam member Jamaal (Christian Magby) listens at Malcolm’s door while a solitary Sam sings a tune is as beautiful and necessary as some of the film’s showier monologues — lending emotional realism to a film already rife with it. She’s also intent on hashing out the bonds between the men in similar fashion, paying attention to who talks to who about what — Jim will tell Cassius a secret he’d never share with Malcolm, Sam will needle Malcolm in ways he would not subject Cassius to, and so on and so forth — and how that impacts the way they all interact with each other.
King can’t quite kick all of the theatrical inclinations of the film’s source material, though even as its second half moves away from cinematic showiness and more into feeling like a handsomely mounted chamber piece, King finds subtle ways to use the limitations of a single room for great effect. Yes, “One Night in Miami” often looks like the play it’s based on, but King and her stars make the most of any stage-y limitations, and the filmmaker frequently turns her eye to well-assembled overhead shots and a graceful use of mirrors to keep her many characters in the frame all at once.
It is, after all, a reflective film. While King and Powers aren’t attempting to offer a precise historical transcription of whatever happened that fateful night, what “One Night in Miami” provides is something richer: an emotionally accurate telling, one that always endeavors to find the real people underneath the famous gloss. “One Night in Miami” hits so hard because it remains joyfully, often painfully grounded in what makes a person extraordinary, even when the world isn’t ready for them. Here’s hoping this world is ready for what King has to show it.
“One Night in Miami” premiered at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release it in 2020.
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