Empowering in ideas and full of compelling moments, “One Night in Miami” isn’t your comprehensive biopic or period piece of the celebrated historical icons on display in Regina King’s directorial debut.
Instead, screenwriter Kemp Powers (who also co-directed and co-wrote Pixar’s Soul) and King focuses on one fictionalized night in one late evening that involves Malcolm X, Muhammed Ali, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown. Each of these men are icons and friends, who all left a seminal impact in history, whether in the arts, politics, or sports.
To be sure, “One Night in Miami” isn’t a perfect film. The pacing is inconsistent, and many scenes are overly verbose since it’s based on Power’s own stage play. However, King shows a great confidence behind the camera as each of the performances are riveting to watch, especially Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke as he embodies his mannerisms and voice to the tea. His performance has all the subtle nuances on the musician, writer, performer, artist, and superstar.
It’s also not a larger-than-life performance either, it moves away from impersonation and evolves itself into a rich supporting performance that truly stands on its own. It is almost inevitable at this point that Odom Jr. will win the Best Supporting Oscar, a musician and Broadway actor himself, Odom is an unfamiliar actor that will hopefully elevate himself into starring in more roles in the future. His supporting performance of the year ranks up there with Bill Murray’s in “On the Rocks,” David Strathairn’s in “Nomadland” and Paul Raci’s in “Sound of Metal.”
There is so much to appreciate about “One Night in Miami.” The film is about four iconic friends that not only centers on the human struggle against racism, prejudice, and social injustice, and it’s also a deeply felt film about the power of friendship. King deserves credit for making a film about four historical figures that is always focused, tightened, and never meanders off into melodramatic trappings. She delivers the right balance of being resonant while never falling into biopic detours. She covers a lot of material in her confined settings, even more so than many other sprawling biopics that were also ambitious, had larger budgets and scope, but were deeply flawed like Michael Mann’s “Ali” and Taylor Hackford’s “Ray.”
The tale begins with an introduction of the four famous Black men in the year of 1964. The men include, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) who all meet up in a hotel to celebrate Clay’s triumph over Sonny Liston to become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world at a very young age.
While a triumphant moment to celebrate, Malcolm X wants to celebrate the moment in his hotel room with ice cream instead of going out, in which his room is guarded by Nation of Islam security guards, as he is living in paranoia not only from the FBI, but even his own enemies inside the Nation of Islam. During the night, Malcolm X and the guys discuss injustices, oppression, economic opportunities, as they also debate each other about the roles they must play for the black community. The most confrontational and compelling debate is between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke, in which Malcolm X believes Cooke isn’t using his talents to the best of his ability. Malcolm X believes Cook should be using his voice and talents to write more empowering songs about the struggles Black people endure.
The film is structured very much like “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” which is also based on a play. Sure the film has limited settings that take place mostly in a hotel room and a roof, however King does some inventive things with a flashback that involves Malcolm X attending one of Cooke’s concerts once his microphone goes out after being sabotaged by musical legend Jackie Wilson. King also makes the material endlessly compelling and highly engaging.
Most of the time stage play adaptations grow tedious, that become too verbose that lose dramatic momentum as they feel overly hermetic. However, King is able to keep the material fresh with the strong performances and Kemp’s impressive dialogue. Due to King being an actress herself, she is able to focus on getting strong performances from the cast, and each of their debates, exchanges, and rebuttals deliver in such a natural and organic manner that never feels stagey or too rehearsed.
“One Night in Miami” creates a vivid time when Black men achieve fame and celebrity stature during the Civil Rights movements. America was enduring many uncertainties, civil unrest, and social changes that echoes the world we live in now. Each of these men worry for their future and for the struggle that’s still omnipresent today. As we see Malcolm X, his main principle was improving the livelihoods for Black people in America. Malcom X was an empowering figure who paved the way for activism and courage. A controversial figure at the time who is celebrated and revered in history today. A subject in Spike Lee’s 1992 masterpiece “Malcolm X,” his call for actions and battles against injustice will remain championed.
As a film, “One Night in Miami” should be embraced for avoiding detours. As noted above, there is only one flashback, and the scene comes at the right moment as it highlights the power of creativity and friendship between Cooke and Malcolm X. We get a sense of who these men are through the dialogue, along with an impressive opening that involves each of them enduring their own setbacks, as well as some events leading up to their meeting at the hotel room.
The ensemble cast here is a talented group of actors that truly bring such chemistry to the screen that never slip into caricature or impersonations. While hard to top Denzel Washington’s exceptional and iconic performance in “Malcolm X,” Ben-Adir’s performance of Malcolm is commanding and convincing. Through his performance, we get the nuances and anxieties that are confined with him–while he admires his friendships with everyone, but he wants to transcend their friendship to advance Black culture and possibly his own self-interests which is eventually confronted by Cooke who feels Malcolm is using Clay as a pawn for Malcolm’s own selfishness.
Above all, “One Night in Miami” triumphs in demystifying folklore as making these iconic figures into nuanced characters, depicting the complexities, flaws, betrayals, and confrontations that go into a friendship and using their celebrity in doing something substantial. The film doesn’t shy away from depicting Malcolm X having his own agendas that possibly benefit him, perhaps a confrontational and driven man who does anything to achieve his goal of making the world more hopeful, less oppressive and optimistic for Black people in America and around the world. Hidden behind this, King and Powers highlight each of these men, despite their imperfections, they truly hold great right intentions in correcting racial politics. The payoff of the film is also rewarding, without revealing too much of what occurs, the film ends on a powerfully moving moment that shows how the encouragement of others can lead to hope, action, and finally change.