Even just reading the description of this film, I could see the potential, the possibilities for it to speak to not only a particular point in time but also address some of the racial inequities that continue. When I saw that it also featured Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr, Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir, my hopes were raised even higher for this to be an incredible film. My hopes were fully realized in this insightful and powerful film about a fictionalized meeting between four unique voices addressing the responsibilities of successful black men during the civil rights movement.
Directed by Regina King, in her first feature, from a screenplay by Kemp Powers based on his play of the same name, One Night in Miami, is about a fictionalized meeting between Malcolm X, Mohammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke in a Miami hotel room following Ali’s surprise title win over Sonny Liston. The film not only explores the dynamics between the four men but also explores the responsibilities of successful black men, what they owe those in their communities and how they can aid the civil rights movement with the success, money, and power that they’ve achieved. While I believe that most people of color are aware of many of the issues discussed, the value is the insight it can bring to others and the truths that are revealed about each of these men and what they’re striving for in their individual careers.
This is one of those films where it is difficult to quantify but for me, part of what I did enjoy was how the plot wove together the relationships between the four men with their discussions about what they owe those around them, what they can do for the civil rights movement. A large majority of the conversation is the conflict between Sam Cooke and Malcolm X. Malcolm is not an athlete or a musician and feels that each of the others has more success and power than he himself has, has more potential to impact the movement and he pushes them to do more. Sam pushes back, feeling that his contributions to the black musicians he’s mentored and the business he’s created is more than enough, using licensing rights to build wealth and success for his musicians. But each of the others has their own struggles, their own insight they bring to the discussion. Jim Brown is loved as an athlete but isn’t good enough to be invited into the house of a white man. Mohammad Ali has made the decision to join the Nation of Islam but struggles with the restrictions and how to tell the world, what impact that will have on his career. Ultimately, I love the introspective nature, the philosophical questions raised during this night of talk between the men, issues that still are part of the fabric of the United States. What makes the film even more poignant are the deaths of both Malcolm X and Sam Cooke, both within a year of the fight and the setting of the movie.
Not only is the casting of this film brilliant but the design of the film is incredible, the attention to detail. As you watch, clothes and cars featured are perfectly chosen for the time period. Between the deft handling by Regina King of the material and the smallest details like the camera Malcolm uses, the film weaves the past into insights for the present that will resonate into the future. And while the small details of clothing and cars pale beside the insights, they build the authenticity of the movie, and that builds into the truths of the film.
There are many aspects of this movie to enjoy, the frank discussion we see between the men, both the humor and the deeper moments where they especially Malcolm waxes eloquently about the movement and about the role each man can provide. Honestly, it is the kind of discussion you can only get between black men in a safe space and it is one that clearly Regina has provided for her actors. We also get to see the sheer weight of these men on the time period, Ali’s prowess in the ring, Jim Brown’s athleticism and intelligence, Cooke’s smooth voice and charisma, his talent with music, and Malcolm’s thoughtfulness and spirituality. The moments between these men, both individually and with each other is what makes this such a profoundly moving film.
In that regard, each man is perfectly cast. Aldis Hodge shows his depths, his subtlety in his portrayal of Jim Brown, the moments he watches, and then weighs in on the conversation, with rich insights. Leslie Odom Jr. brings both his beautiful voice to the role of Sam Cooke along with his range of emotions, his ability to convey passion and depth. Eli Goree infuses his role as Mohammad Ali with humor and the cocky attitude of an athlete at the top of his game but also is able to convey the concerns over his religious choices without lessening that confidence. The most intricate performance, though, is Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X at a moment when Malcolm is leaving the Nation of Islam and striking out on his own. Mohammad is a big win as a recruit for the Nation but Mohammad is weighed down by his decision to leave and the fears for his life and his family. Ben-Adir does a brilliant job of conveying all those emotions, not just in dialogue but in glances and body language. His portrayal is critical and his skill with this role is what makes the movie so complex and insightful. But truthfully, all four men are amazing and this is one of the few films where there are zero flaws with the performances or the film itself.
If you are someone who loves films about the past, films that explore how the past resonates into the present, and how those insights of different voices give us truths we wouldn’t otherwise have, this is the film for you. The honest truths explored in the screenplay and the performances of each incredible actor bring to the screen a rich, emotional, moving film that audiences will not and should not miss.
5 out of 5 voices.
One Night in Miami will land on Amazon Prime on January 15, 2020.