On the night of Feb. 15, 1964, a young boxer named Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston to become the new Heavyweight Champion of the World. The title bout was held in Miami. Later that evening, the man who would become Muhammad Ali adjourned to his hotel to hang out with his friends: soul singer and entertainer, Sam Cooke, former NFL superstar and newly-minted Hollywood actor, Jim Brown, and political firebrand and black rights activist, Malcom X.
One Night in Miami, a new motion picture based on a play by Kemp Powers, explores what might have taken place on that special evening that gathered four towering figures in the black community to discuss their lives, hopes and dreams.
Over the next year, Sam Cooke would die during an apparent kidnapping attempt, and Malcolm X would be assassinated at a political rally. One Night in Miami examines these men in the prime of their lives with bright futures ahead as they grapple with fame, wealth and their responsibility to the black community.
Films adapted from plays can often feel inert by being confined to a single set, relying solely on the actors to give the movie any emotional or dramatic weight. Film critics often dismiss such productions as being “stage-bound.” Thanks to Kemp Powers’ excellent adaptation of his own play and the direction of Emmy and Oscar-winning actress Regina King, One Night in Miami doesn’t feel limited by its live theater origins.
The film wisely opens with scenes of the four men outside of their relationships to one another. We see moments of the Clay-Liston fight, Sam Cooke winning over a reluctant concert crowd, Malcolm X discussing his political future with his wife, and Jim Brown being harshly reminded that while he may be an NFL superstar, he’s also a black man in 1964 America.
Each of these scenes gives the audience a feel for the characters as individuals before plunging them into the group dynamic that accounts for the remainder of the film.
As you might imagine for a film born from a stage play, One Night in Miami is an acting showcase. Each of the four young actors disappears into his role, but for me, the standout was Leslie Odom, Jr. as Sam Cooke. His musical performances are stunning, and his verbal sparring with Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) is riveting.
In one key scene, Malcolm accuses Sam of being a sell-out, using his fame to entertain rather than inform and educate the black community. Odom Jr.’s performance during this verbal brawl may very well put a Best Supporting Actor Oscar on his mantle in April.
Regina King is best known as a performer, and One Night in Miami is her debut as a director of theatrical features. It’s a daunting task to make four men talking in a hotel room visually interesting, but King is up to the task. She and cinematographer Tami Reiker carefully walk the line between too much and too little.
The film is never static nor does it employ unnecessary camera flourishes. The cinematography has a nice flow to it without drawing attention away from the performers. King’s excellent work may result in the first ever Oscar nomination for a black female for Best Director.
The only minor flaw in an otherwise excellent film is the screenplay’s tendency to be a little on the nose. The characters occasionally spell out the themes of the film in the dialogue instead of letting the audience make the connections themselves.
Malcolm X’s preoccupation with his premature death feels less like a character trait and more like authorial intrusion by the playwright/screenwriter who has the hindsight of history to rely upon for that plotline.
That aside, One Night in Miami is one of the best films of 2020 and is in my personal Top 20 for the year. It’s currently wrapping up its limited theatrical release before it hits Amazon Prime on January 15th.