There’s a popular ice breaker at parties that goes something like this: “If you could have a conversation with four people, living or dead, who would you pick?”
The new film One Night in Miami plays a bit like one possible answer to that question—except the conversation really did take place, and the film, based on Kemp Powers’ play (he also wrote the screenplay), is an educated—and highly engrossing—guess as to what it might’ve looked and sounded like.
In this case, the conversation happened in a Green Book-sanctioned motel room between Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.). It was the night of Clay’s upset victory over Sonny Liston in Miami Beach, the young boxer’s first heavyweight crown. The plan was for the four friends, all in town for the fight, to celebrate in Malcolm X’s room with a raucous party—or so the other three thought. Of course, as a member of The Nation of Islam, Malcolm X didn’t drink, chase skirts, or smoke. He was a serious man and that night in particular, he had serious things on his mind. It’s funny to watch the men realize that instead of a celebration, Malcolm X intends to have a deep conversation—“I wanted to get some pu**y,” Brown says mopily—but hey, at least he provided (vanilla) ice cream. (That delightful detail was apparently true.)
Before we get to that room, the film’s director, the great actress Regina King, neatly sets up each character. Cassius, as we know, is cocky, brash, garrulous, and ridiculously charming. But he’s heavily influenced by his friend and spiritual guide, Malcolm X, and is planning to convert to Islam. Cassius’ mostly white coterie of managers and trainers view his friendship with Malcolm X with a jaundiced eye—X was feared and reviled by white American—but Clay was always his own man.
As for Malcolm X, he’s already on the FBI’s surveillance list for his soaring anti-integrationist rhetoric and manifest leadership skills. Now he’s at a crossroads of his own, considering leaving The Nation of Islam to start his own sect. (He’s disenchanted with what he perceives to be the immoral behavior of the movement’s leader, Elijah Muhammad.) His wife (Joaquina Kalukango) is fearful. The FBI is lurking everywhere and the couple has two small daughters—if Malcolm were to leave behind the protection of The Nation of Islam, they’d truly be on their own.
We meet Sam Cooke on stage at the Copacabana Club, performing in front of a mostly hostile white audience (a few get up and leave the minute he takes the stage). At this point, he’s a huge and wealthy star, with his own record label—a man who indulges in the pleasures of white America (expensive sports cars, hotel suites at the Fontainebleau) without fully being accepted by white America.
The set-up of NFL-star-turned-actor Jim Brown is perhaps the most eye-opening. He goes to the home of a wealthy captain of industry in Georgia, Mr. Carlton (Beau Bridges). The two men amiably drink lemonade on the wraparound porch and Carlton, in his avuncular drawl, talks about how proud he is of Georgia’s famous and talented son. If Brown needs anything—anything at all—he shouldn’t hesitate to ask. But there are limits, we will soon find, to Carlton’s bonhomie.
In the motel room, as bow-tied Nation of Islam guards (including Lance Reddick) stand warily outside the door, it becomes clear that Malcolm X has a few agendas: He wants to ensure that Cassius Clay (soon to become Mohammad Ali) is really converting—and that he’ll remain loyal to him no matter what—and he wants to try to convince Sam Cooke to use his voice (literally and figuratively) to speak to Black oppression.
Each man has his own perspective on the state of Black America. Cooke argues that by owning his own record label—and conferring wealth onto his Black artists—he’s already doing a lot for his people. (This is a convincing argument in light of the history of Black artists being exploited by white record label owners.) But, in a striking scene, Malcolm X plays Cooke’s records back to him—“You Send Me” and other similarly shallow love songs. Then he plays Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and chastises Cooke for not writing something as vital and revolutionary as this white boy from Minnesota did.
Cassius Clay is having second thoughts about his conversation to Islam. After all, he’s got the world at his feet—does he really want to give up drinking and partying now? Jim Brown is perhaps the least developed of the four characters, but still interesting. His moderation, in a way, is its own choice. He’s already the NFL’s greatest player, so famous that he’s been cast in his first movie. He’s considering giving up football for good. In this hotel room, he’s seen as something of a peacemaker among the four men—a level head who sees both sides and can subdue escalating tension with his powerful and calm presence.
All the acting here is remarkable. If Ben-Adir emerges as a bit of a standout, it’s only because Malcolm X is the one with the greatest sense of urgency. He feels the walls closing in on him and the weight of his own legacy. He has the slightly hooded, cautious bearing of a man who fears he may not be long for this world.
Eli Goree, an actor I was unfamiliar with, is absolutely winning as Cassius Clay, perfectly capturing the champ’s singsong way of speaking, livewire energy, and somehow boyishly endearing self-aggrandizement. “Damn I’m pretty,” he says, inspecting his face in the mirror, as the other men laugh fondly.
Hodge, as mentioned, has to play a decent and wise man who holds his cards close to his vest, is not drawn to either extreme—and he does so expertly.
Finally, it’s Odom Jr. who has the greatest character arc—he resists Malcolm’s admonishments, but they clearly get to him. His face registers his internal struggles, as well as his justifiable pride in what he has built on his own. The film ends with Odom’s powerful voice, as Cooke undergoes a moment of personal reckoning.
One Night in Miami can’t hide the fact that it’s based on a play, but King does an excellent job of keeping the camera moving and focusing on the expressive faces of her wonderful cast (a couple of times she captures them alone, in the bathroom, staring pensively into the mirror). Although more than half of the film takes place in that one motel room—a “dump” as Cooke appraises it—it never feels claustrophobic. Production values are high and the whole thing looks damn good.
One Night in Miami feels a little haunted—we know that both Malcolm X and Sam Cooke will be dead within a year. But the film has a joyful quality as well. For all their differences, these men loved each other. One Night in Miami is about racism, and the different ways these Black men chose to negotiate a country that alternately exploited, rejected, celebrated, and reviled them. We no longer have to say, “If only I could’ve been a fly on the wall during that extraordinary night.” King and co. have taken us to the room where it happened.
One Night in Miami is now streaming on Amazon Prime.