From the concept itself, the film sounds intriguing. One Night in Miami, where iconic Black figures such as Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, Cassius Clay, and Malcolm X come together for one night to share their perspectives on what it means to be a Black male role model, or, more honestly, what it means to be Black in a public sphere that is dominated by white people.
Academy Award-winning actress and first-time director Regina King begins the film by showing each of the characters engaged in individual struggles before coming together in a Miami motel after Clay’s (Eli Goree) heavyweight title fight with Sonny Liston. The audience meets Clay while he is in the ring with Henry ‘The Hammer’ Cooper (Sean Monaghan) and is nearly knocked out after arrogantly expressing his confidence toward fighting Cooper.
Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) is then introduced while being expelled from the Nation of Islam by leader Elijah Muhammad (Jerome A. Wilson). Beginning with this event ensures that the direct threat Malcolm faces of being removed from the Nation feels more immediate and concrete to audiences. For a monumental figure that has been depicted dozens of times on the screen and in writing, Malcolm’s struggle within the scope of the film does not feel any more or less important than the other characters by the end.
In New York, singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) performs at Copacabana, where he is humiliated by an all-white audience that is visibly unimpressed by his performance. Finally, in what is one of the most powerful scenes in the whole film, top NFL running back Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) returns to his hometown in Georgia to visit a family friend. After a warm welcome and even a glass of lemonade on the porch, Brown is informed he is not allowed inside the home due to his skin color—a remark that’s performed casually as if it’s something Brown should have expected when visiting a “friend.”
Fast-forward to 1964, Malcolm, Brown, and Cooke are all present to watch Clay upset Liston to become the heavyweight champion, when Malcolm invites each of them to his motel room to celebrate. The three guests expect a party with plenty of alcohol and guests to commemorate the victory, but everyone except Malcolm is perplexed to find no one else is invited. What follows is a profound analysis of what it means to be Black in America. It takes about 30 minutes to get all of the characters in the motel room talking, but once it starts, the film reaches its full potential, allowing for sharp dialogue to display each of the characters’ experiences as Black men in America to the audience.
In one scene, Brown and Malcolm share a guarded but truthful conversation about how they view racism in America. Brown claims that economic freedom will lead the Black population forward as opposed to anything that is taught in the Nation of Islam. Eventually, they chuckle and agree that members outside of the Black community should not be proud when they merely refrain from being overtly cruel to Black men and women. Brown then asks Malcolm, “Do you expect a dog to give you a medal for not kicking it that day?”
These conversations about societal vantage points related to race are the prime focus of the film. These dialogues equip visceral and private exchanges between characters to gift audience members with something which they can think over, offering audiences more than just entertainment.
The film may be a work of fiction, but it gives audience members the sense that they are a fly on the wall and learning who these four men truly were away from the limelight. When the men talk to each other about their experiences, they are depicted at their most vulnerable and authentic—a characterization that diverges from the narrative many of us are taught about Malcolm X in school.
Emotion pours out when Cooke and Malcolm butt heads in the motel room. Cooke is an extravagant performer who performs for white audiences. Malcolm is controlled and much more stoic, criticizing Cooke for not empowering the Black community with the platform he has. Both Odom Jr. and Ben-Adir play into this narrative with their characters, matching the details of their vocal patterns with accuracy to how Cooke and Malcolm talked. But Ben-Adir in particular does not try to perfectly copy Malcolm’s mannerisms, taking liberty to present his own interpretation of how Malcolm would have acted and behaved in this particular and fictitious encounter. In no way is Ben-Adir’s Malcolm an impersonation, but is instead a well-acted character.
One Night in Miami is adapted from a stage play of the same name by Kemp Powers, and while some of the direction and plot structure is confined by its original theatrical adaptation, the praise it received (virtually) in film festivals across the globe is certainly well deserved. King delivers a poignant and thought-provoking film with One Night in Miami that establishes her role as a talented filmmaker who has a lot to say.
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