A barebones summary of One Night in Miami sounds like a “dude’s delight” movie: Four men out on the town, no attachments to keep them in line and a skyward limit to their evening revelry. But the four men are Sam Cooke, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown and, most of all, Malcolm X; the town is actually the Magic City; and the specific evening is February 25, 1964, when heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston crossed gloves with Clay and lost his title in what a plurality of commentators described as an “upset.” Subjects passing the characters’ lips include, of course, boxing, and women and ice cream, but they’re coupled with other, more important subjects like Black American identity, whiteness and how the two interact with one another. But that doesn’t rob One Night in Miami of the “delight” clause, thanks in no small part to crackling performances by a cast of exceptional young actors (Eli Goree, Leslie Odom Jr., Aldis Hodge, Kingsley Ben-Adir), and directed with cool confidence by Regina King in her feature debut behind the camera.
Her adaptation of Kemp Powers’ stage play is a historical document written to presuppose what conversations these fellows might’ve had in private and, save for a pair of Malcolm’s Nation of Islam bodyguards, away from prying ears. It’s a compelling fiction rooted in reality. It’s also thoroughly entertaining, witty and exuberant. This isn’t a film about meaningless merrymaking. It’s about conversations that actually matter, both within the period context and without.
Little that Malcom (Ben-Adir), Brown (Hodge), Cooke (Odom Jr.) and Clay (Goree) confab about has faded into irrelevance in 2021. Their closed door exchanges remain urgent even now, nearly 60 years after Cooke’s and Malcolm’s respective passings and only 5 years after Clay’s. Paranoia hangs over the film like death’s shadow as Malcolm, ever vigilant even on a night meant for celebration, looks over his shoulder to find white men tailing him, loitering by curbs and in parking lots as if it’s a coincidence that they keep happening upon the same places. They never interact face-to-face. They’re not supposed to. In fact, the distance King maintains between these men and Malcolm lands harder than a considerably more dramatized confrontation ever could. It’s one of the two key dampers on the occasion’s joy.
The other damper is Malcolm himself, who at the time of One Night in Miami’s present is wrapped up in a crisis of faith and thus a crisis of identity. His dual existential anxieties coupled with his very grounded, very real anxieties about his and his family’s safety understandably alter his mood further, and the combined strain makes him a tad unpredictable. Malcolm is a verbal pugilist contrasting with Clay, who fights for a living and whose personality is as much a boon to his career as his martial gifts. Between them, Clay’s the bigger braggart but the greater charmer. He’s the beacon the others have come to rally around on this fine night, after all. But Malcolm’s a livewire and it’s he who stirs up tensions among the quartet, particularly concerning Cooke, the brightest star of them all—and yet to Malcolm’s eyes, a kind of disappointment.
One Night in Miami could be appended with a subtitle of “The Sam and Malcolm Show.” A big chunk of the film orbits the slowly building confrontation Cooke has with Malcolm, who sees the former’s voice as an asset for the cause and lambastes him for writing accessible R&B tunes instead of protest songs. Cooke, for his part, bristles at how easily Malcolm dismisses the positive effects his successes as a musician and entrepreneur have on Black American communities. As both men rile each other up and dress each other down, Brown and Clay sit on the sidelines attempting to mediate. Theirs is a Sisyphean task, but to see them try as their friends bicker is to see their fame dissipate. As the argument expands, all of these men start to look less like icons and more like, well, men: Regular people with regular concerns and everyday flaws. They’re mortal and imperfect, and to witness their mortal imperfection is One Night in Miami’s greatest joy.
The cast facilitates the movie’s subsumption of celebrity into humanity with staggering naturalism, as if the four had simply sat down on set together and riffed as old friends do. Maybe that’s their actual process. Maybe it’s King’s. Regardless, the effect of their chemistry packs One Night in Miami with explosive charisma, whether in Odom Jr.’s songsmanship, Brown’s sage elder statesman quietude, Goree’s ebullience or Ben-Adir’s buzzing unease.
When Ben-Adir reclines on a chair or sits on a bed, the guy’s still a perpetual motion engine of frayed nerves. Something’s coming for him, and he knows it, but he doesn’t know what of the many somethings coming for him will reach him first. Ben-Adir has arguably the most difficult task of King’s leads: Stepping out from the shadow of Denzel Washington’s performance in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. That he does so with such a deft touch is a remarkable feat. Ben-Adir crackles while Goree perfectly captures Clay’s defining spark, Odom Jr. turns his vocal mastery into a character unto itself and Hodge plays Brown’s doleful side. He’s a man in need of change, in search of carousing, and prepared to play peacemaker as the temperature rises.
They’re an imminently compelling group, and King’s an imminently talented filmmaker who understands that directing is all about knowing where to place the damn camera. She knows. She finds her angles and sorts out her blocking with the casual grace of a veteran. One night (and 110 minutes) with her, and with her cast, just isn’t enough.
Director: Regina King
Writer: Kemp Powers
Starring: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree, Lance Reddick, Joaquina Kalukango, Michael Imperioli
Release Date: January 15, 2021 (Amazon Prime)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.