One Night In Miami... pulses with the beating hearts of four legends

Shannon Miller
·6 min read
One Night In Miami...
One Night In Miami...

After winning the heavyweight championship against Sonny Liston, a 22-year-old Cassius Clay headed to civil rights luminary and spiritual mentor Malcolm X’s suite at the historical Hampton House in Miami. There, the gentlemen were eventually joined by soul icon Sam Cooke and celebrated Cleveland Browns fullback Jim Brown. The night has long been immortalized as an apex of four seemingly converging moments in Black American history: Soon after, Clay would reintroduce himself as Cassius X—then later as Muhammad Ali—and publicly solidify his devotion to Islam. Already a champion of civil rights, Brown—the lone survivor of the quartet—would retire from football at the height of his athletic career to pursue acting. Less than a year after their meet-up, the world would tragically lose both Cooke and Malcolm X.

Very little is known about the miraculous summit that took place in that modest hotel room on February 25, 1964, leaving the moment ripe for artistic speculation. Playwright Kemp Powers (who recently co-directed Pixar’s Soul) took blessed advantage of this in his debut play, One Night In Miami..., a 90-minute fictional account that places unwavering focus on the meeting by sequestering its action within the walls of the hotel suite. In her feature directorial debut, Regina King gently widens the scope of Powers’ story, while zeroing in on the beauty of this serendipitous union. With the help of four intuitive performances, King’s film adaptation briefly removes these titans from their pedestals to tell a meaningful story that is as humane as it is political—a difficult feat when you’re talking about some of the biggest cultural figures in modern history.

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The film opens with a series of insightful vignettes that peek in on each figure at a particularly low point. That includes a young Cassius (Eli Goree) publicly struggling to prove his prowess in the boxing ring, as well as Sam’s (Leslie Odom Jr.) hard-fought performance at the Copacabana turning tense by the anti-Blackness of the crowd and staff. Pulling some of the focus away from the play’s singular setting does have a slight drawback: It gives the film a somewhat slow start, rather than the anticipation that it was likely intended to build. However, it does task each figure with facing their deepest insecurities as Black men in America—a conscientious touch that adds additional context to their eventual gathering.

To King’s credit, the choice does further differentiate the adaptation from the source material, creating an experience that comes across more grounded than its stage origins. (To be clear, that’s not always preferable, as George C. Wolfe’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom showed the merits of leaning into a work’s theatrical roots. Still, it’s a favorable move in this instance.) By the time we finally reach Cassius’ monumental championship victory, what follows doesn’t feel quite as suffocating as it might have, had all of the action remained in one place. It speaks to King’s time-tested instincts and visual style: With a few key changes in the setting—a rooftop chat here, a trip to the liquor store there—it keeps the story from feeling claustrophobic. What’s more, these shifts in scenery bring down the intensity of the discussion, so that the audience never loses sight of the characters’ enduring friendship. Even when matters get particularly prickly, the film never quite becomes a powder keg, and that’s the direct product of King’s insistence on prioritizing their humanity over their passion.

The night really begins with a comical excuse for a party, courtesy of the mild-mannered Malcolm (Kingsley Ben-Adir), who invites the fighter, the soul singer, and their football legend of a friend (Aldis Hodge) back to his suite to celebrate Cassius’ win. But the intimate gathering soon devolves into an impassioned discussion about the state of Black American masculinity, the path to communal liberation, and what each man owes the civil rights movement. The most potent teachable moments don’t arrive with grand declarations, but with the conflicting mindsets that clash once the conversation gets heated: Was Sam’s emphasis on personal financial prosperity selfish, or the path to true freedom? Was Malcolm’s judgment of Sam valid during a time of serious civil unrest, or did he fail to take into account how colorism and class separation impact how we navigate certain movements? Thought-provoking and evergreen, these are the moments that emphasize the true potential of historical fantasy: It’s not about lofty dialogue and pie-in-the-sky ideals, but rather finding the beating heart in each figure through fiction. When the weight of their respective legacies is lifted from each man’s shoulders, they’re treated with depth and nuance befitting such complex ideology.

One Night In Miami...
One Night In Miami...

Much of the characters’ relatability arrives at the hands of four actors tasked with elevating their historical counterparts above caricature. For the most part, the leading men deliver performances that feel deeply anchored in reality and show different sides of these cultural heroes. Hodge and Ben-Adir are especially impressive, offering subtly, poise, and vulnerability in spades—so much so that moments shared between these two men feel indulgent, like you’re truly witnessing a quiet, everyday conversation between icons. As Cooke, Odom Jr. exudes the most confidence when he’s singing, meeting the late performer’s soul-stirring vocals with verve and passion. But perhaps the one with the hardest job is Goree: Taking on a larger-than-life persona like Muhammad Ali—famously ripe for impersonation—without settling into rote mannerisms and clichés requires remarkable skill. Though there are instances when his interpretation strikes a somewhat superficial tone—largely during times of pronounced bravado and ringside theatrics—Goree captures the fighter’s youth and yearning for spiritual mentorship in a way that draws real empathy for both the man and the legend in the making.

Goree, Odom Jr., Hodge, and Ben-Adir do more than pay homage to great leaders; they connect with their innermost passions and fears to paint fuller portraits of who these men were before they reached immortalization. But more importantly, their friendship injects a certain beauty into this lovely tale, balancing serious debate with friendly ribbing—because how else do you respond to a party that involves little more than two tubs of vanilla ice cream?—and mutual celebration. One Night In Miami... isn’t exactly a biopic, but we can only hope that the real men experienced a night that was equally as fulfilling.