Film & TV

American Icons Meet at a Pivotal Moment in Regina King’s ‘One Night in Miami’

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Director: Regina King
Date: Jan. 8, 2021

R | 1 hour 54 minutes

Four of 20th century America’s most significant figures gather for a night of revelry and reflection in the Regina King-helmed adaptation of Kemp Powers’ “One Night in Miami.”

Released in theaters nationally Jan. 8 and to Amazon Prime Jan. 15, King’s feature directorial debut finds itself understandably carried by the performances of its four leads. Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge and Leslie Odom Jr. all needed to be on their A game to do King’s adaptation justice, and they delivered.

Adapted for the screen by Powers himself and set in 1964 on the night of Cassius Clay’s infamous upset over Sonny Liston in the boxing World Heavyweight Championship, the largely fictional film attempts to recreate a real meeting between Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Clay, who gathered to celebrate the big win and reflect on their respective careers.

Malcolm sets the film’s titular night in motion by asking the friends to come to his hotel, but instead of making him just the group’s fearless leader, Powers portrays a man balancing his public and private personas. Malcolm is filled with anxiety and paranoia that’s dismissed by his friends, but plays out tragically in retrospect. It’s a daunting role to fill, but Ben-Adir is up to the task.

The film’s Malcolm X is the impassioned political firebrand most commonly remembered, but Ben-Adir’s performance and Powers’ script take care to portray the man’s sensitivity and deep compassion, as well as his interest in photography. 

Courtesy of Amazon Studios Regina King’s “One Night in Miami” was released to Amazon Prime Jan. 15.

Equally impressive is Eli Goree’s turn as a 22-year-old Cassius Clay, more well known as Muhammad Ali. Goree’s Clay spends the film contemplating his recent decision — aided by Malcolm — to join the Nation of Islam, but he’s also basking in the glow of his huge win, and carries all the prideful arrogance and youthful sarcasm one would expect.

Yet even at one of the pivotal moments of his boxing career, Clay is just a young man, and not even being the best boxer in the world can remove his tender insecurities. Goree’s performance is spot-on as an impression, but his embodiment of one of the film’s greatest strengths is more impressive: none of these men are entirely their public personas, but none of them are phonies either —  they’re flawed people with great successes and embarrassing failures alike.

Exploring the psyche of real-life cultural icons is nothing new, but the film’s recognition that these traits aren’t a secret code to understanding celebrities, merely a part of being human, is rare among historical fiction.

That’s not to say the quartet necessarily enjoys addressing these things, or that they agree on what to do about the world’s problems. Odom Jr.’s Sam Cooke matches Clay’s cockiness, but is also older, richer and more secure with where he’s at. He drives flashy cars and keeps a flask in his guitar case, and predictably, he immediately bumps heads with Malcolm over his singing career. 

Malcolm believes Cooke panders to white audiences who don’t see him as an equal when he could be writing songs that advocate more for the Black community. Meanwhile, Cooke believes he’s supporting the cause more directly through his personal success and Black artist-supporting music label.

The two debate for a large chunk of the night — and the film — culminating in Cooke storming out. Clay leaves to retrieve him, leaving Malcolm and Brown alone to chat.

Portraying Brown near the end of his Hall of Fame career as running back for the Cleveland Browns, Hodge is stoic, yet easily agitated. He talks shyly about his desire to start an acting career after football at first, but becomes defensive quickly when teased about it.

When Cooke leaves, Brown and Malcolm have a heady dispute about the matter. The conversation hints more than a little at Cooke’s famous protest song “A Change Is Gonna Come,” but the film is full of this spirited debate. 

Malcolm’s friends are clearly uncomfortable with his insistence that they be “weapons” for the Black community, yet it’s also clear they can’t refute his arguments. Everyone there is well aware of white people’s near ubiquitous racism in this era, with Brown noting he prefers “hillbillies” who come right out and say it to the quiet, casual racism of other white people. 

Being white, I can never truly understand these experiences myself on a level that matters, but the point shouldn’t be lost on anyone who’s white: racism is an engrained trait built into the fabric of America from the beginning, and if you’re not fighting against bigotry, you’re perpetuating it. 

Yet King’s movie is not a militant one; it’s an earnest one. These are four Black men who spoke out for their community and fought for fair treatment of Black people in their own ways. It’s no accident we’re looking back and trying to understand what they disagreed about and how they wanted to change things in our current times. 

By portraying the powerful passion for enacting social change through American culture these men felt, King, Powers and the whole cast and crew have provided an uplifting reminder that enacting positive change takes conscious, relentless effort. In a time where we receive increasingly distressing reminders of that fact, “One Night in Miami” feels like an urgent, yet triumphant beacon of hope.

“One Night in Miami,” rated R, is available on Amazon Prime.

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