Based on the smash stage play by Kemp Powers, the enthralling new biopic One Night in Miami depicts a fictionalized meeting between four burgeoning icons in the mid-1960s. We meet the first of the four, Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), in the ring during the opening scene as he whales on a fellow boxer in Wembley Stadium. This victory leads to a title match in Miami against then-champion Sonny Liston, where Ali shocked the world by becoming the youngest fighter at the time to win the heavyweight belt. To celebrate his win, Ali invites his friends Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) over to his hotel room to share drinks and reflect on their past successes along with their future challenges.
One Night in Miami is the directorial debut by Regina King, the Academy Award-winning actress who most recently headed up the acclaimed HBO series Watchmen. Behind the camera, King establishes herself as a true actor’s director, bringing out the very best in each of the four talented performers despite the majority of the film’s “action” taking place within the confines of a single room. Films based around plays, like the fellow Oscar contender Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, typically face issues translating the limited settings of their source material to the screen but King proves that you don’t need to punch up the material to make it compelling. The way that she vividly catalogs the convictions and concerns between these four dominant male personalities is especially impressive for a first-time effort.
Adapting his play, screenwriter Kemp Powers (who also co-wrote Pixar’s Soul) considers the positions of each of the four legends at this point in history and how a hypothetical conversation between them might go. Their dialogue is vibrant and revealing, finding the quartet playfully ribbing at each other one moment and more sternly questioning one another the next. There are many topics covered during their all-night hangout but many of the exchanges center around each of the famous figures’ responsibility towards their race during the Civil Rights Movement. As to be expected, Malcolm X is the most confrontational towards each of his cohorts, pressing them explicitly on what they are doing in their respective crafts of music and sports to further progress for African-Americans.
With limited settings and dialogue as the primary driving force, the performances are critical for the film to operate and each of the actors brings something special to bring out the most in their real-life icons. Ben-Adir brings both the righteous anger and thoughtful introspection that we tend to associate with Malcolm X but also adds a dimension of childlike exuberance when he brings out his camera to capture the moment. Goree lends tremendous physicality and the obscene confidence that define Ali’s persona but he peels back the layers to reveal a young man who isn’t as sure-footed as he seems. Hodge is portraying who is arguably the least well-known of the four characters but feels right at home with an easy charisma and warmth.
Best of all is Odom Jr., who broke out when Hamilton hit Disney+ last summer and follows through with a deeply soulful and moving performance. As Cooke, he comes across as an easy target for Malcolm X’s repudiation but turns the tables in rope-a-dope fashion on the activist, whose life was cut short a year after the events of the film. We know that Odom Jr. is a talented singer but the way that he conjures the legendary singer’s tender timbre is magical, particularly in the film’s concluding moments. One Night in Miami is a stylish rumination on race and responsibility through the eyes of four larger-than-life figures whose human qualities are brilliantly presented.
Score – 4/5
Also new to stream this weekend:
Making a last-minute debut on HBO Max is Locked Down, a pandemic-set heist film starring Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor about a quarreling couple of diamond thieves who put aside their differences to pull off a lucrative new job.
Debuting on Netflix is Outside the Wire, a sci-fi action movie starring Anthony Mackie and Damson Idris about a drone pilot who is sent into a deadly militarized zone and must work with an android officer to locate a doomsday device.
Available to rent on demand is MLK/FBI, a documentary that explores the investigation and harassment of Martin Luther King Jr. by The Federal Bureau of Investigation through newly declassified documents.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup