It’s February 25, 1964, and four men in the prime of their lives are in a hotel room to celebrate history in the making. Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), soon to be Muhammad Ali, is riding the high of becoming the heavyweight champion of the world at just 22 years old. He’s joined by his spiritual mentor and political activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), charismatic soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) to celebrate his victory and to examine their respective places in the world during the ongoing Civil Rights movement.
One Night in Miami marks Regina King’s first time in the director’s chair for a feature film—and it’s a solid debut at that. Adapted from a stage play of the same name by Kemp Powers (who also served as a cowriter on the screenplay), One Night in Miami is a fictional interpretation of a real night and real-life friends, all celebrated icons in their own right. One Night in Miami’s monologue-heavy screenplay makes it feel more like a play than a film at times. Not to say that it’s not a compelling film—far from it—but that it’s more concerned with interrogating the psyches of its ensemble players than it necessarily is with what’s happening around them.
Even the film’s limited set—much of it takes place entirely in the aforementioned hotel room—is indicative of its time and place in history. Normally the winner of Cassius’s prestigious title would celebrate his victory with crowds of supporters along the hottest spots in Miami Beach, but he is unable to due to the Jim Crow-era segregation laws still in place. That grim reality colors and seeps into every second of the night, which evolves from friendly banter to serious questions about the state of the world and an examination of each character’s vastly different approaches to social and racial justice.
Commanding performances are the backbone of One Night in Miami. Odom Jr. is given the space to showcase both his strong musicality and his acting chops in a post-Hamilton world as a musician grappling with his place in the industry, as someone who claims to want to inspire radical social change. Hodge is solemn and measured as the NFL star transitioning to acting—navigating the exploitation and lack of humanity that comes with being a Black man in America, even in the public eye. Goree has big shoes to fill as Cassius, but he successfully channels the wide-eyed optimism and hubris of a young man on top of the world. But the most notable of the bunch is Ben-Adir, who manages to take the life of Malcolm X—a larger than life figure whose shadow looms over those who adapt him—and still manages to bring a rich complexity that feels entirely unique to him.
One Night in Miami walks a delicate tightrope of being both timeless and of the time it depicts. The conversations about race, power, and influence are still being had to this day—and the film’s dynamo ensemble actively rejects the notion that Black experiences are in any way monolithic. Some may find One Night in Miami to be quiet or uneventful, or that it may not live up to the high caliber performances that electrify it, and that may be true. King reveals her directorial shortcomings in her sense of pacing, and fails to transform Powers’s play in a way that suits the unique medium of film. But King and the actors at the heart of One Night in Miami make its most quiet moments compelling, letting its audience become a fly on the wall on the fictional fringes of history. v