DISCLAIMER: Mild spoilers abound for Amazon Prime’s One Night in Miami. Proceed at your own peril.
It’s like the opening line of a corny joke: “Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali walk into a bar …” However, all four men were friends in real life. All of them really spent a night together in Miami after Ali’s (then known as Cassius Clay) historic win of the world heavyweight title on February 25, 1964. But One Night in Miami‘s account of the events that unfold has a tinge of speculation to it. Well, it’s more of a combination of fact and fiction. Putting the puzzle pieces together, if you will. Regina King‘s project explores each icon’s contributions to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The majority of the film takes place inside Malcolm X’s hotel room at the Hampton House Hotel.
Thus, it sort of feels like a TV “bottle episode” in that respect. Kemp Powers penned the script based on a play he wrote years ago. Said play debuted in 2013 to rave critical reviews. One Night in Miami retains that play-like structure, which is especially evident in the blocking/movement with the actors.
Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) secures the world heavyweight title after triumphing over Sonny Liston in the ring. His mentor, activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), proffers his hotel room for a night of celebration. Soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) join the festivities. Clay is preparing to join the Nation of Islam, committing his life to the Muslim faith. Of course, this means abstaining from alcohol, but Clay’s young and wants to party. Malcolm X is quite conservative when it comes to secular activities so the party is confined to the four men, much to the others’ chagrin.
Then, the night takes a heated turn as tempers flare and commitments are questioned. Malcolm X doesn’t believe Cooke is devoted to changing Black lives for the better. He points out that Bob Dylan‘s music better encapsulates the Black struggle than Cooke’s tunes of blissful romance. Clay questions whether Malcolm X only wants to use him as a representative of the Nation of Islam because of his star power.
Hodge’s Brown feels like an observer to the night’s events in One Night in Miami. As if he symbolizes us as an audience. He’s a stoic, self-assured man who can see through fake niceties. His bullsh*t detector is unparalleled. One of my favorite lines from him hits the nail on the head regarding white folks and their need for gratification. That white people think they deserve accolades for not treating the Black community as less-than.
Of course, this harkens back to our introduction of Brown in the movie. He’s home in Georgia and visiting his neighbor Mr. Carlton (Beau Bridges). The elder white man heaps praise upon praise for Brown’s exceptional work as a fullback for the Cleveland Browns. He even urges Brown to come to him with anything should the latter need help. It smacks of the White Savior Industrial Complex and something told me it was about to get worse. When Brown offers to help Mr. Carlton move furniture, the latter nonchalantly refuses him entry, citing that he doesn’t allow “n-word” into the house. And there it is. One Night in Miami does an excellent job of pulling back the curtain in this regard.
Now, it’s not lost on me just how timely this film is. Apparently, King and her crew filmed One Night in Miami during the currently ensuing pandemic. 2020 propelled the Black Lives Matter Movement forward with the unjustified and heartless murder of George Floyd by police officers. Floyd’s murder is a stark reminder that racial injustice is still pervasive in this country. Not much has changed since the Civil Rights Movement. Racism and white supremacy are still massive issues. The movie highlights this and drives that important message home.
During One Night in Miami‘s second act, Malcolm X delivers an impassioned speech regarding those who sit on the sidelines. How those who are inactive are taking the side of the oppressor. Black people are dying in the streets every day. Unfortunately, that’s still happening. His words are eerily relevant to the current social climate.
While all four actors give exemplary performances, Ben-Adir is the shining star. His Malcolm X is unapologetically vocal and passionate about his desire to see equality on all fronts. And yet, there’s a subtle fear that lurks beneath the surface. Intermittently throughout the film, he observes two men who may be following him. Amid a scene on the rooftop of the hotel, he confesses that he feels he may be on the cusp of death. This feeling he has is justified, especially with his final outing in the movie. His family home is set ablaze, so he must move his wife and kids to a hotel room. Again, it’s eerie, especially given that he died in real life less than a year later.
That vulnerability is evident and a beautiful sight to behold. The scene where Malcolm breaks down in front of Brown is touching and tragic. To me, Ben-Adir steers this ship.
Goree imbues Clay with a wonderfully optimistic youthfulness. He’s a “pretty boy” who often makes remarks about his appearance. Clay also wholeheartedly believes in himself. Goree injects Clay with that easygoing confidence that’s a joy to watch on screen. He knows he’s destined for great things and isn’t afraid to take the next step. By the film’s end, we see Clay’s inevitable transformation into the Muhammad Ali we know today.
Hodge’s stoicism as Brown is calming, in a way. He grounds us into this story. However, he’s not entirely the “strong and silent” type. Hodge really shines during his scene with Ben-Adir. His speech about knowing who white people truly are and seeing through their faςade gives us a glimpse of vulnerability. He gives Brown nuance aplenty throughout the flick, but it’s especially evident in that scene. By the film’s end, Brown quits football and takes a stab at acting. In real life, Brown broke barriers in the world of entertainment. He was involved in one of the first interracial love scenes on film with 100 Rifles (1969). He even had top billing over Burt Reynolds.
Odom Jr. has a spectacular voice, but we already know that from his work in Hamilton and Central Park. His Cooke is reminiscent of Aaron Burr in that he doesn’t really take a stand for anything. He monologues about not wanting a “piece of the pie,” but the “goddamn recipe” in regards to conquering the charts in the music industry. Cooke gives an example of blatant racism, wherein a Black man’s song scores on the low side of the charts. Then, The Rolling Stones record the same song and are catapulted to the top spot. However, Cooke still gets royalty checks because said song was produced through his company.
At face value, that story may demonstrate Cooke’s nonchalance when it comes to racism. How he just wants money. But money is power. Brown makes a point to Malcolm X about the Black community seeking economic power. He notes that Cooke is the only one of the four who isn’t “waiting on a check from a white man.” Odom Jr.’s Cooke differs from Burr, though. In the end, Cooke sings “A Change Is Gonna Come” on Johnny Carson‘s show because he was moved by Dylan’s song and Malcolm X’s persuasion. Of course, the timeline is tweaked a bit in One Night in Miami, but it works plot-wise for the film. Regardless, Cooke decides to take a stand. Odom Jr. delivers a nuanced performance that puts Cooke’s evolvement over the course of the movie on display.
One Night in Miami is mainly character-driven with very little action. That may be disappointing to some. If you love plays and classic films, then you’ll love this movie. Just bear in mind that it moves like a stage production and less like a film production. The characters push the story forward and it’s dialogue-heavy, much akin to the black and white flicks of old. King delivers solid direction and allows the story to breathe. Powers’ script is raw, visceral and powerful, giving viewers an account of the racism that existed in the 1960s and still does today. The dialogue packs a punch. I don’t say this often, but One Night in Miami is a vital piece of work. It should and needs to be watched. There are crucial lessons wrapped within the plot, as well as a painful reminder that racial injustice still runs rampant.
But it’s also a story of hope. All four men continue past that incredible night to make waves for the Black community. While both Malcolm X and Sam Cooke died shortly after that, their legacies are undeniable. Their marks are indelible. The electrifying cast is the anchor, with each actor proffering some truly remarkable performances. Ben-Adir’s star will continue to rise.
Watch One Night in Miami. If anything, to honor these historical icons for their works. Approach this movie as if it were a play because it is. A stage play on camera. This film is important, eye-opening and enthralling. A beacon of hope and a call-to-action rolled in one. A reminder that the work isn’t done.
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