Inspired by true events, Kemp Powers’ stage play One Night In Miami imagined what could have taken place on a February 1964 evening where famed activist Malcolm X, champion boxer Muhammad Ali, crooner Sam Cooke, and professional football player Jim Brown all shared their life experiences over vanilla ice cream in the Hampton House Motel in Miami.
In the midst of the civil rights movement, each man held a certain level of influence, though it was always a known factor that such influence didn’t necessarily mean they were in complete control of their power. Someone initially harnessing all the power they could was Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), then known as Cassius Clay, who defied the odds in beating Sonny Liston (Aaron D. Alexander) to become the World Heavyweight boxing champion. In his corner that night to lend support were Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), the quartet ultimately looking forward to unwinding and celebrating the win in the kind of decadent fashion they had become accustomed to.
Such indulgences are not to be though as Malcolm, reflective as he is, indicates he has his own agenda for bringing the men together, leading the Powers-written film on a journey that touches on religion, segregation, and the notion of violence. Under the assumption that he’s something of a peace keeper and speaking with the grandest of intentions, Malcolm spends much of the evening – and therefore the majority of the film’s 110 minute running time – trying to convince Cassius through his preachings to officially announce his conversion to Islam, all the while admonishing Sam for obeying the ways of the white man in the music industry. Jim, who is in the midst of transferring from the sporting arena to the realms of Hollywood stardom, keeps things as grounded as possible, letting his level-head offset the machismo of Cassius, the righteousness of Malcolm, and the sternness of Sam.
As directed by Regina King – the Academy Award winning actress making her directorial debut in feature film – One Night In Miami is an intimate film in terms of its setting, but it maintains a larger sense of self as it counterbalances this fictionalised meeting with a view of how the US was unfolding politically at the same time. King directs with such conviction and passion, effortlessly displaying a keen eye that lets both the atmosphere and the actors involved work in unison. She emerges as a true storyteller, and if this is indicative of her efforts as a first time director (at least in relation to film) then one can only imagine the greatness that will come from further projects under her intuitive gaze.
As much as King guides Powers’ words, the ensemble enlisted the unenviable task of portraying such iconic, real-life figures as those depicted here are just as crucial to the film’s success, and Ben-Adir, Goree, Hodge, and Odom Jr. are perfection in their respective roles. Whether it’s the virtuous presence Ben-Adir expresses as Malcom, Goree’s cocksure bravado as Ali, the facile mixture of imposing physicality and gentle demeanour that Hodge brings to the role of Brown, or Odom Jr.’s ability to emulate the undeniable spark that Cooke possessed every time he took to the stage, these four actors consistently succeed during the dialogue-heavy narrative.
Given that it is based off a stage show, One Night In Miami doesn’t completely eradicate its origins, with the near-single setting and flowing discourse leaning into this accordingly. But, such is the collective power of the elemental talent involved, it’s difficult to not surrender to such storytelling when it proves equally as compelling as it does beautiful.
One Night In Miami is streaming on Amazon Prime Video from January 15th, 2021.