What would Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown say to one another?
While this sounds like the prompt for a history essay, the movie “One Night in Miami” imagines these icons meeting on the 1964 February evening that Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, became a world boxing champion.
Based on the 2013 play of the same name, it’s almost impossible to believe that this is Regina King’s (“Watchmen”) directorial debut. Using every cinematic tool to her advantage, she brings 1964 to Technicolor life with evocative staging, fitting musical choices (the song “Blowin’ in The Wind” is a highlight) and reimagined historical imagery.
The film starts off with Ali fighting an Englishman in Liverpool, where the almost completely Caucasian crowd is uniformly hostile. This sense of conflict is threaded through the next three introductory scenes, as Sam Cooke performs at a glitzy, sneering L.A. venue; a Southern elite patronizes Jim Brown and Malcolm X agonizes over leaving the Nation of Islam and threats to his family.
“One Night in Miami” sets the historical stage through character, rather than relying on setting. This makes the ensuing character-focused story all the more thrilling because the audience understands on an emotional level what the four icons are up against in a white-dominated America.
It is difficult enough bringing one momentous historical figure to the screen, let alone four. Yet the cast of “One Night in Miami” makes it look easy. The men are humanized enough to be relatable as characters, but they also bring history to blazing life when it’s right for the story — Malcolm X geeks out over his new camera and, just a few scenes later, exclaims “we’re fighting for our lives” in a furious cadence that feels like watching the man himself.
While both Aldis Hodge’s (“The Invisible Man”) Jim Brown and Eli Goree’s (“Riverdale”) Muhammad Ali are utterly convincing, Kingsley Ben-Adir’s (“The OA”) Malcolm X and Leslie Odom Jr.’s (“Hamilton”) Sam Cooke eclipse the other two characters. Throughout the night, Malcolm X and Sam Cooke draw one another into an intensifying conflict over their views on America. Malcolm X is appropriately severe in his outlook, pushing Cooke to stop singing love songs and to start fighting for social change. Cooke calls out Malcolm X for demonizing people who, in his view, could be won over through song. Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown try and put out the fires.
Since Kemp Powers, playwright and screenwriter of the original play and now the film, the movie sticks closely to its theatrical roots. Most of the narrative takes place inside a motel room, where the four characters converse about their historical moment and what it meant to be a Black celebrity in 1964. For a 2021 audience, the themes explored concerning race and American oppression are arrestingly relevant. However, since the bulk of the movie takes place in one room, with everyone talking almost non-stop, even the best-acted and most well-written conversations begin to drag.
Thankfully, whenever “One Night in Miami” begins to lose its momentum, an emotional moment or a cutaway rips one’s attention back. The restraint in setting and plot, while occasionally one-note, gives the scenes of excitement a sublime air, like Muhammad Ali pulverizing a boxing opponent or Sam Cooke performing to a crowd that explodes with joy.
“One Night in Miami” is a thrilling piece of historical imagination with great performances, and establishes Regina King as a director to watch.
Daily Arts Writer Andrew Warrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.