by Philip Price
Director: Regina King
Starring: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge & Leslie Odom Jr.
Runtime: 1 hour & 54 minutes
It was 70 degrees in Miami Beach, Fla. on the night of February 25th, 1964. It had reached temperatures as high as 81 earlier in the day, but the night was mostly cloudy and pretty damn humid. Ironically, this rather oppressive climate would be the backdrop for the night Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) would become the heavyweight champion of the world at the age of 22. Clay, in a somewhat shocking upset, defeated the animal that was Sonny Liston - who was 10 years Clay’s senior - by technical knockout when Liston refused to answer the bell at the start of the seventh round. Because no one actually expected the young, cocky Clay to take home the title there was no large celebration planned. Instead, Clay and a 38-year-old Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), his spiritual mentor, who Clay had flown in for support along with the likes of eventual NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), who'd just turned 28 eight days prior, and the absolute musical legend that is Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) who'd celebrated his 33rd birthday at the end of January, but who had no idea he'd never see his 34th as he'd be killed only 10 months after the events of the film all retreated back to the black section of town and mostly hung out in the small, unremarkable hotel room that Clay had arranged for his friend Malcolm X. On February 26th, 1964 Clay would announce that he was becoming a Muslim and henceforth become known as Muhammed Ali.
“One Night in Miami…,” the feature directorial debut of Oscar-winning actress Regina King based on the 2013 stage play by Kemp Powers is about what theoretically happened on this single night when four men who would come to define their era and play immeasurable roles in the larger fight for civil rights explicitly had nothing better to do than celebrate their friend's win with cheap booze and vanilla ice cream. Of course, there is no way to know the actual conversations held between these men that fateful night in Miami, but Powers-who adapted his own stage play for the screen-has surmised what was on the minds of each man given the circumstances of their lives at the time and what each would come to do in the months following that February night. In many ways the film is almost an origin story for the mythical status the four would come to be renowned for, but what is not only insightful about Kemp's screenplay and King's direction, but absolutely critical to the success of conveying the main ideas infused through each of these figures is that even these men who would go on to be regarded as legends, heroes, martyrs, and what have you-even they were vulnerable human beings who doubted themselves and questioned their choices. Obviously, this is something of an over-simplification of what's at the heart of “One Night in Miami...” and yet it perfectly encapsulates that no matter how deep this thing cuts or what complicated questions it poses the execution of it all feels absolutely effortless.
We are first introduced to Goree's Cassius Clay as he battles Britain's Henry Cooper in the summer of 1963 at Wembley Stadium where he complains about getting blood on his shorts and how if he gets any more on them his momma won't be able to get it out. We travel next to New York City where Odom Jr.'s Cooke is making his debut at the Copacabana to an all-white crowd as owner Jules Podell had only recently changed the rules allowing black performers and patrons into the club. Hodge's Brown was born in St. Simons, an island off the Georgia coast, and in his introduction in the film we see the football star returning to his hometown to visit an old friend in Mr. Carlton (Beau Bridges) who would initially give the impression he loves and appreciates all Brown has done not only for himself, but for how well he's represented this place he calls home. Of course, this is all until Brown assumes his status would actually change how a black man was treated in Georgia in the early- ‘60s as the film swiftly reminds us that even those who might seemingly transcend race are still viewed as less due simply to the color of their skin. And finally, King brings us around to Ben-Adir's Malcolm X as he preaches a sermon on perspective as this was around the time Malcolm X began to grow disillusioned with the Nation of Islam, as well as with its leader Elijah Muhammad. This disillusionment plays into a plan Malcolm consistently alludes to throughout the film that will come to serve as the crux of many of the conversations these four men have over the course of the night-namely Malcolm and Clay and Malcolm and Cooke with Brown's ever commanding presence serving as the balance to the more extreme ideologies contained in this single space.
Obviously, “One Night in Miami...” is a character-driven piece with the richness of its quality not having anything to do with the details of the plot, but wholly being wrapped up in who these characters are as people. It is in this approach that King is able to allow character to drive her movie rather than story. While the inspiration undoubtedly comes from Powers' screenplay and the work he did when first crafting this story into an organized account of some sort, King seems intent to uphold the fact that by containing not only the action of the movie to more or less a single location, but the dynamics of the relationships we see displayed that it will by contrast allow for these hugely meaningful moments to occur. Essentially, it's not necessarily about what happens to these characters so much as it's about setting up who they are and defining their humanity with cultural specificity while relaying the universal themes expressed within those. These are four young, black, righteous, and famous men and they existed at a time, during the ‘60s, that have proven to be a crucible moment in regard to the unrest that decade spawned and that has since been burned into our psyche largely due to the innovation of live TV during that time. Just as with today and the innovation of social media in all its forms, it's not that things like what have seemed to become more commonplace didn't happen before, it's simply that these innovations have both made people more aware while unfortunately inspiring further hate. In the ‘60s specifically, this innovation represented a bomb of change with race and class intersecting on everything all at the same time. It is this heightened awareness, this ability to instantly reach a larger audience than ever before that has the four men at the center of the film considering the role they play in the continued liberation of their people. At one point, Cooke tells Malcolm that, "Taking the world on your shoulders is bad for your health." So, the question is posed, "What responsibility does a successful black person have to their people?" Are they affecting change simply by leading as an example or does it need to be more direct, more pointed in order to actually make some type of difference moving forward? The stars of the text were having these thoughts in 1964 whereas it's more expected to have these kinds of thoughts today. Clay had to live in two worlds from a young age as he was both a black man in the south as well as an incredibly famous person. He was both a champion for the people and a hero to the black community. He had to take on the mantle of this worldwide leader in the public eye while being a very conflicted man in private. It is in the power of the film - and Goree's handle on Clay as a character and not a caricature - that come the final moment of the movie we completely understand that key word Malcolm preaches about: perspective.
Naturally, Clay and Malcolm are more the stars of the show in that they are the reason these four ended up spending a night together in the fashion they did, but each still gets their moment to shine; the performances only enhancing this exceptional scenario across the board. Both as singular figures as well as with one another these moments are erected as Kemp's screenplay reverse engineers what is presented as being on each character's mind based on what was likely being discussed. Each character stays in their lane as far as how the character is conceived for the purposes of the film, but it comes as no surprise that Malcolm - to use his own words - is quite truculent as he passionately believes there is no room for anyone to be sitting on the fence any longer. That said, it's difficult to tell initially if he himself can handle people doing the same to him. Malcolm completely dejects any other black man who doesn't view their role in the world in the same way he does which feels somewhat ironic given the aforementioned speeches centered on perspective, but he believes his race as a whole should feel empowered in the same way he does which again lends “One Night in Miami...” more fertile soil to dig into. For example, Brown brings to the table questions of whether the point of all Malcolm's pushing is more in order to prove something to white people or his fellow black people where both he and Brown know that lines break down even further. This feeds into the Malcolm/Cooke dynamic which may very well be the most fascinating the film has to offer due to the fact these two characters have diametrically opposing viewpoints. Malcolm wants to tear down the institution completely while Cooke wants to take it over from the inside out. Cooke believes that by winning people over with his music that he is knocking down doors for everybody. Malcolm simply labels this as pandering as he protests that Cooke could easily have the loudest voice among all of them. Malcolm sees no reason why what is happening isn't cause enough for them all to be angry while trying to convince Cooke he'll never be able to win over those he seeks to satisfy whereas Cooke feels he can recognize Malcolm for what he truly is - a natural born hustler. Brown and Clay meanwhile touch on what it feels like to be gladiators for the rulers sitting up in their boxes. Brown is on the verge of breaking free of this role where he's praised by all when serving as their entertainment, but immediately degraded for expecting respect off the field. Brown, and therefore Lodge, are the low-key MVPs of the film as more times than not Brown resolves the divided room with sound advice; a moment with Brown reminding Malcolm that the key to true independence is economic freedom and that Cooke is more economically free than any of them is especially reflective. To use football-appropriate terms, Brown's reasoning exerts a keen reminder in the difference between the payoff of the long game and the instant gratification of the passing game. Still, Malcolm holds firm to his belief in black power a la a world where black people are safe to be themselves and free to think how they want without having to worry about paying for it as a world that can only be accomplished through his methods.
We are meant to be a fly on the wall. “One Night in Miami...” is meant to feel like we're listening in on discussions the public weren't privy to while presenting a more sedated, relaxed version of the public personas each men had created. It's the fact King's film accesses a version of these men that gets to the essence of who each of them was that makes her debut one of the most powerful films of the year. Though clearly not written in reaction to the events of the past few years, “One Night in Miami...” also feels more pertinent than ever - especially in this bombshell of a year. It is both the cathartic experience the Black Lives Matter movement seemingly needs and deserves right now while also adding another layer to the movement as a film about characters whose inner turmoil's and doubts are unfortunately similar to those faced by many in the black community today.