They say that with great power comes great responsibility. But power is relative. When society determines that a group of people is inherently lesser and constructs barriers to maintain the status quo, the power that any individual of that group obtains is conditional. So, how does one reconcile their “great responsibility” when their power isn’t great?
For her directorial debut One Night in Miami, Regina King looks to a fictionalized account of a real-life meeting between four powerful Black men of the ’60s for insight. The night in question is the boxing match that would declare Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), then known as Cassius Clay, the world’s heavyweight boxing champion. Supporting him that night are three close friends: NFL player Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), R&B singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and civil rights leader Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). After Cassius’ victory, Malcolm invites the group back to his motel room to celebrate and, as he puts it, “reflect” on the evening’s events.
The men have much to reflect on. Malcolm X’s relationship with the Nation of Islam has fractured, and he is leaving to form his own organization. Aware that his exit could be catastrophic, Malcolm is banking on Cassius, a new convert to Islam, to support him. Unfortunately for Malcolm, Cassius’s security in his new faith is shakier than he would hope. Sam and Jim’s reflections are more professional than spiritual. Sam is still nursing the wounds from his disastrous debut at the Copacabana, where no one seemed to want him there because he was Black. Jim, already regarded as an NFL legend, is considering an acting career. Their struggles, egos, and the moment’s racial tensions collide, changing their lives forever.
One Night in Miami is an ambitious undertaking. Adapting stage works for the screen can be a hit-or-miss enterprise; Regina King and Kemp Powers have the added challenge of expanding his one-act, 90-minute stage play to fit within a cinematic context. They handle the transition beautifully, envisioning a rich world outside Malcolm’s motel room that amplifies the intimacy built within it. The film’s opening scenes offer glimpses into each man’s life, establishing the universal truths that ground their friendship and their distinct issues that threaten to derail it. King keeps their challenges in view as they converge for the championship bout, leveraging new spaces and scenarios to explore them. Malcolm and Sam’s tension is palpable through a simple phone call, as is Cassius’ less-than-resolute faith as he prays with Malcolm before the fight. Malcolm’s fear of violence filters through the whole film, with his omnipresent security guards and his intense focus on two loitering white men he fears have been following him. Given Malcolm and Sam Cooke’s real-life deaths and the violence Black people are still subject to, the unease created is potent.
Malcolm’s paranoia and distrust of his surroundings is part of the Black male experience, but King seeks to paint a broader portrait. Before diving into its complex themes, One Night in Miami delights in the group’s camaraderie and chemistry. Moments like Malcolm offering the guys vanilla ice cream as a party favor and them tossing his camera around on the roof counterbalance the more solemn discussions and the rifts they create. Guided by stunning, incisive dialogue, the men deconstruct their roles in the civil rights movement and the value of their contributions. The conversations traverse the spectrum, from economic freedom and music ownership to cultural appropriation and colorism in the Black community. Ultimately, the men struggle to reconcile their considerable power with its constructed limits and how they can leverage it to help their people. They don’t reach a consensus, and each man follows his own, decidedly different path, but they are all significant and profound in their own right.
The film’s true achievement is how it allows its towering Black icons to be vulnerable. Each man looms large in the popular imagination, and One Night in Miami brings them back to Earth by revealing their fears and weaknesses, calling out their hypocrisy and fallacies, and surfacing the admiration beneath their fiercest arguments. It goes a long way in keeping us engaged when the motel room conversations might’ve lost their spark. Sadly, perhaps inevitably, the attention isn’t evenly distributed. Malcolm is easily the most fleshed-out character of the ensemble, whereas Jim feels undercooked by comparison (even with the most memorable lines). Still, Black men, real or fictional, are rarely given a chance to be so unguarded on screen, making the film emotional and almost radical.
These nuanced characterizations come to life through an excellent cast that brings new dimensions to the legends they inhabit. Kingsley Ben-Adir’s take on Malcolm X will surely invite comparisons to Denzel Washington, but he doesn’t falter in the shadow. Ben-Adir leans into Malcolm’s fear and uncertainty of the future, conveying a simmering anxiousness even at his most self-righteous. His performance is the film’s most achingly human. Eli Goree also deftly avoids caricature in his portrayal of Muhammad Ali, imbuing his trademark bluster with shades of doubt. Leslie Odom Jr. fits Sam Cooke’s easygoing crooner persona like a glove, but his eyes communicate the anger, defiance, and shame beneath his million-watt smile. His final scene performing Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” is a clarion call for an Oscar nomination. Aldis Hodge is the steel beam holding together the ensemble with his dry wit and dignified yet imposing presence.
Regina King skates past the pitfalls that might accompany a first feature and delivers an evocative, comprehensive canvas of male Blackness in the ’60s that is still relevant. With a brilliant script, nuanced performances, and a powerfully confident vision, One Night in Miami is a stunning all-around accomplishment that deserves to be at the forefront of conversations around the Best Picture Oscar.
One Night in Miami is available on Amazon Prime Video.