‘ONE Night in Miami’ is the directorial debut of Regina King, the only African American actress to win the Oscar and Golden Globe best supporting actress awards (for “If Beale St. Could Talk”) and four Emmy primetime best actress awards (for “American Crime” – 2 times, “Seven Seconds” and “Watchmen”.)
She now debuts as a full length film director in “One Night in Miami”, which is about four influential black men: Malcolm X, the radical activist who was assassinated in 1965; Cassius Clay, the boxing champ who later becomes Muhamad Ali and died in 2016; singer Sam Cooke, known as the King of Soul music who was shot to death in 1964; and football star-actor Jim Brown who’s the only one still alive and is now 84 years old.
Based on a play by Kemp Powers (the first black director to helm an animated movie for Disney, “Soul”, which is splendid), the four lead characters are really said to be friends and their get together in Miami did happen in real life, but the details about their meeting are mere speculations of the playwright.
‘One Night in Miami’ is set on February 25, 1964, when 22-year old Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston and became the new heavyweight champion of the world at the Miami Beach Convention Center. On hand to watch him are the three other lead characters and the movie is a fictional account of their interaction with each other while in a hotel room in Miami after the fight.
Prior to this night, Clay was shown fighting Henry Cooper in London, establishing his character as oozing with confidence and quite arrogant. Cooke is shown having a flop show in New York’s Copacobana where the white audience walked out on him.
In Georgia, football jock Jim Brown visits a friend who praises him for his triumphs as an athlete but tells him “we don’t allow niggers in our house”. Malcolm X, in turn, tells his wife that he intends to break away from the Nation of Islam as he doesn’t believe any more in their corrupt leader, Elijah Muhammad.
In Miami, before the game, Clay says that after the fight, he will announce in public that he will convert to be a Muslim. After he won, the four meet in the hotel room of Malcolm who tells them he wants them to seriously reflect about where their careers are going.
Malcolm tells Cooke he should not prostitute his music by catering primarily to white audiences but Cooke is unapologetic for his success with mainstream viewers. Malcolm makes him listen to a hit song written by Bob Dylan, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, and asks him why he can’t compose a protest song like that.
It is revealed that Malcolm intends to leave the Nation of Islam and he’s worried about his own life as the FBI is hounding him. Clay says he’s changing his mind about converting to Muslim if Malcolm himself is leaving the Nation of Islam. Malcolm says he is forming his own organization and asks Clay to join him. Clay feels betrayed and rejects him.
All of them are on the threshhold of change at that moment. Jim Brown shares with them his plan to leave football and become a full time actor in Hollywood. The night ends with Clay being interviewed by the press. After that night, Malcolm’s decision to leave the Nation of Islam had negative repercussions on his life. His house was set on fire and he was murdered the following year.
Cooke gets to compose his own protest song, “A Change is Gonna Come”, but he tragically gets shot to death in a hotel at the end of that year. Jim Brown leaves football and focuses on his acting career. All the actors playing the lead roles are exceptionally good.
Kingsley Ben Adir (Malcolm X) is a British actor best known for his TV work in such series as “The OA” and “The Comey Rule” where he played Pres. Barack Obama. Eli Goree (Cassius Clay) is a Canadian actor also better known for his TV roles in such shows as”The 100”, “Riverdale” and “Dead of Summer”.
Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown) is an American actor best known on TV for the shows “Leverage” and “Underground”, and in the movies for “Hidden Figures” and “Straight Outta Compton”. Leslie Odom Jr. is also American and best known for his role as Aaron Burr in the Broadway hit “Hamilton”, for which he won the Tony best actor award in a musical, and for TV shows like “Person of Interest” and “Law and Order”.
The whole play happens just inside the hotel room, but as director, Regina King opens it up and shows several scenes outside the hotel room, like the championship match between Clay and Liston and other scenes that shed light on the characters individually. She also stages the scenes in the hotel with great emotional flair, with the four leads exchanging their conflicting ideas against each other, playfully trading insults and revealing how and what they feel and think about what life and being black really is.
The movie is perfectly cast and the acting is superlative all around. We were blown away by the depth of talent on display on screen. The roles are formidable because they’re all legends in their own rights and in hindsight, you realize that it’s not actually a picnic to portray such icons on screen.
But all of the leads are truly very engaging and have their own highlights. It’s Goree, though, who has the most showy role as the brash, flamboyant Clay and he captures the swagger and bloated ego of the character who’d stare at the mirror and declare he can’t believe how pretty he is. It’s truly an amazing impersonation, if you’re familiar with the real Clay/Ali. Regina King made a very impressive debut and we won’t be surprised if she’d get more offers to direct films in the future.