On February 25th, 1964 Muhammed Ali (Cassius Clay at the time) beat Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight boxing champion of the world in Miami. Clay’s celebration started by spending the evening in a Hampton House Motel room with singer and producer Sam Cooke, football Hall of Famer and actor Jim Brown, and civil rights activist Malcolm X. One Night in Miami imagines the conversations that went on that evening. The film is an on-screen adaptation written by the author of the play, Kemp Powers. Regina King makes her full-length theatrical debut in the director's chair.
The film opens with some table settings of what each of the four main characters was doing leading up to the night. We get a small, overly simplified view of their struggle at the time. Malcolm X is played by Kingsley Ben-Adir, Cassius Clay by Eli Goree, Jim Brown by Aldis Hodge, and Sam Cooke by Leslie Odom Jr. They are a fantastic cast full of the right levels of enthusiasm, youthful exuberance, and self-reflection. Each of them delivers an emotional performance that draws you in quickly. Powers pairs the foursome off at various times to give us a better perspective on what they may say in a group setting versus one on one to add a more layered depth.
Bringing plays to screen can be a challenge. What works in an auditorium doesn’t always translate to the big screen. Where I felt Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was overacted at times, I think the delivery in One Night in Miami is more subdued yet remains powerful. It floats like a butterfly at times while stinging like a bee at others. The hotel room is the main set of the film, but the monotony of the same four walls is broken up throughout the film. We spend time in Sam Cooke’s Ferrari, on the rooftop of the hotel, and the grounds outside. The elements of the play are still apparent, but the movie fills out the story in a visually stunning way. Layers of clothes get looser as the film progresses and buttons get opened yet sweat builds on all the characters. The continuity department had a challenge on their hands and did a great job bringing us through this evening.
The film takes on the topic that black celebrities faced during the 1960s. Malcolm X is well known for his work with the Nation of Islam and civil rights. Sam Cooke’s contributions are a bit more subtle as he worked behind the scenes in the Hollywood music industry. Jim Brown was concerned about life after football and became an actor because it was ‘easier on his knees.’ It was also a career that was more prolonged than any NFL player could ever hope for. Cassius Clay was just 22 when he won the title in Miami. He was the youngster of the group with youthful exuberance and cockiness. He didn’t fully understand his place in history yet. The struggle in the film is between Malcolm and Sam trying to convince Cassius which way he needs to take his future. Jim Brown serves as a moderating figure between everyone.
One Night in Miami is a proper movie adaptation of a play. The dialog still drives the film, but it comes through believable performances from four stellar actors. Seeing four framings of the black experience in 1960s America battle out on screen is a unique experience. 57 years removed we can see how each character’s actions impacted our world. The film also leaves it up to the viewer to draw parallels to today. The film gives you the flexibility to sit with what it presents and draw your conclusions. Regina King knocked it out of the park in her theatrical debut and I hope to see more of her work on screens big and small.