After notching up several years’ worth of solid TV directing credits, Regina King tackles her first feature with confidence in One Night in Miami, unsurprisingly coaxing full-blooded performances from her charismatic leads. While the film doesn’t entirely mask the stage origins of its single-setting core, this is a skillful adaptation of playwright Kemp Powers’ 2013 drama about a hotel room gathering of four famous friends on the night in 1964 when 22-year-old Cassius Clay took the world heavyweight title. Both entertaining and illuminating, the Amazon production draws a tacit line between a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights movement and America’s current racial reckoning.
The bulk of the drama still unfolds, as it did in the play, in a room at the Hampton House Motel & Villas occupied by Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), where he’s joined post-fight by the triumphant Clay (Eli Goree), popular musician Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and star NFL player Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). But King and the writer prevent the stream of talk from becoming static by making smart choices, which go beyond merely taking the action out onto the motel roof, for instance. Powers’ script deftly opens up the material, starting with one telling scene apiece suggesting where each of the men is at in his personal experience of the Black struggle.
Clay is introduced in a 1963 non-title fight against Henry Cooper in London, where his prancing self-adulation is on glorious display. He nonetheless has a lot to prove by the time he goes up against Sonny Liston (Aaron D. Alexander) the following year in a faceoff few expected him to win. In scenes at his hotel before the fight with his anxious trainer (Michael Imperioli) and more relaxed cornerman (Lawrence Gillard Jr.), Cassius shrugs off warnings about his backers objecting to their money being funneled into Nation of Islam causes, the result of his close association with political and spiritual mentor Malcolm X.
The “inspired by true events” tag allows the film to take timeline liberties, like recreating Flip Schulke’s iconic hotel swimming pool shot of Clay three years after it was actually taken.
Early scenes with Malcolm show his disillusionment with the Nation of Islam and the ethics of its leader, Elijah Muhammad (Jerome Wilson), as Malcolm and his wife Betty Shabazz (Joaquina Kalukango) plan their defection from the religious movement even while he prepares to usher Cassius into the fold.
Cooke has scored crossover success with hits like “You Send Me.” But a humiliating gig at the Copacabana shows the limits of acceptance for Black artists when his band is forbidden from playing on stage and the starchy white audience turn up their noses at his act, even as he panders with the vanilla opener of “Tammy.” Sam nonetheless refuses to be shut out of ritzy white establishments, choosing to stay with his wife Barbara (Nicolette Robinson) at the luxury Fontainebleau in Miami rather than join his friends at more modest Black-friendly lodgings.
Brown is first seen driving his Cadillac to visit the plantation-style home of Mr. Carlton (Beau Bridges) on his Georgia birthplace of St. Simons Island. After a warm greeting, effusive congratulations on his football glories, a hospitable glass of lemonade on the porch and an assurance that the ties between their respective families go way back, meaning no favor is too great to ask, Jim gets a rude awakening when the white man casually drops the N-Word to remind him he’s unwelcome inside the house. The cordial smile on Bridges’ face hammers home the soul-crushing double standard of such attitudes.
All this groundwork swiftly conveys the conflicted mindset of each of the men as they gather for what three of them think is going to be a night of partying after Clay’s victory. But Malcolm intends to use the occasion to break news of the boxer’s embrace of Islam — a transition that would eventually see him change his name to Muhammad Ali — while also leaning on Cooke and Brown to put their celebrity behind the movement.
It’s arguable whether these four contrasting personality types really spent the evening thrashing out their views on politics and race. But Powers makes a convincing case for an organic debate in which the stakes are personal for each of the participants and the issues no less relevant today.
Of the four of them, Clay is putting the most on the line, but in Goree’s euphoric performance he’s floating on a cloud, over both his win and the future opportunities he knows are his due. “I am 210-and-a-half pounds of trouble,” he boasts, bouncing on the bed with boyish glee. Catching sight of himself in the mirror, he asks with a rhetorical wink: “Oh my goodness, why am I so pretty?” Like the real Ali, Goree’s immense charm makes the self-worship of this magnificent man entirely infectious, never obnoxious, and the uncertainties that surface as Cassius begins to reveal second thoughts about his religious conversion lend touching vulnerability to the role.
Brown is no less physically imposing than Clay, but he’s a far more ruminative man, a more mature thinker. Initially, he’s disgruntled about the lack of women and booze. But he gradually engages with Malcolm’s dialectic, especially once he loosens up with a few swigs from the hooch flask Sam keeps in his guitar case. Hodge, who showed such brooding command as the Death Row prisoner in Clemency, again communicates depths simply with his eyes and his coiled strength.
Despite doing his part by pouring money into Black businesses, Jim is not impervious to Malcolm’s charges that they should be doing more for the cause. Having shot his first movie role, he’s eyeing Hollywood as a path out of the career expiration date of the NFL, and he argues that Sam is the freest of them: “Economic freedom is the freedom that matters most.”
It’s on Sam that Malcolm comes down hardest. “You’re just a wind-up toy in a music box,” he spits at the singer about his efforts to appeal to the white market. “A monkey dancing for an organ grinder to them.” In his best role since breaking through as Aaron Burr in the original Hamilton cast, the magnetic Odom nails Cooke’s crystalline gospel-soul vocals, with their supple flights of sweet falsetto. But he also slams across the fire in the belly of a man who has found an unapologetic way to co-exist with ingrained prejudice through talent, determination and entrepreneurial drive.
“The only color that matters out there is that green,” Sam says of money in his adoptive home of Los Angeles, reminding Malcolm that he owns the masters to all his recordings and started his own label to produce Black artists. Rather than bemoaning the fact that the Rolling Stones cover of “It’s All Over Now” instantly obscured Bobby Womack’s original, Sam points out that every copy sold of the Brit band’s single adds to royalty checks coming their way.
But Malcolm gets under his skin by hammering the paradox of Bob Dylan, a white artist, having a massive hit with the protest song “Blowin’ in the Wind,” while Sam is crooning sugary love songs. Sam believes politics is bad for business, but his disclosure that he’s working on something new and more meaningful blooms in one of the wrap-up scenes that again expand the scope of the play, where he debuts the Civil Rights anthem “Change is Gonna Come” on the Carson show. (Odom also co-wrote and performs the beautiful original end credits song “Speak Now.”)
Making vivid impressions in secondary roles, Lance Reddick and Christian Magby represent the rigorous hard-liner and the star-struck young acolyte, respectively, as Malcolm’s Muslim brotherhood bodyguards. And Jeremy Pope has a fabulously flamboyant extended cameo as Jackie Wilson in a flashback to a Boston gig where he opens for Sam and proceeds to sabotage the headliner.
The towering performance that centers the nuanced ensemble work, however, is British actor Ben-Adir’s laser-focused, quietly impassioned Malcolm. While he’s not averse to talking down to his friends from a lofty soapbox (at one point he calls them “bourgeois Negroes, too happy with your scraps”), there’s never a moment where you’re not convinced this is a man of integrity who stands 100 percent behind his words. He believes the situation is too dire for anyone to remain safely on the fence. “We are fighting for our lives,” he tells them, expressing an urgent feeling that will connect all too painfully with many African Americans today. “Our people are literally dying in the streets every day.”
The apprehensive looks Malcolm shoots at suspicious white men lurking in the hotel parking lot, as well as a brief scene later showing his family home being fire-bombed, suggest a fatalistic dread that has become his constant companion. That needling awareness resonates strongly given the knowledge that he would be assassinated just a year later.
One could nitpick that the period production design is a tad too spiffy and unlived-in; when Sam says of the Hampton hotel room, “It’s a damn dump,” his disdain is slightly undermined by the fact it could almost pass for a midcentury-modern design spread. But this is a classy-looking endeavor, with crisp, agile widescreen cinematography from Tami Reiker (hot off The Old Guard) and punchy editing from Tariq Anwar helping to maintain visual interest. King also makes judicious use of Terence Blanchard’s cool, jazzy piano score.
To some extent, One Night in Miami remains high-quality filmed theater. But the conviction and stirring feeling brought to it elevate the material, making this an auspicious feature debut. Here’s hoping that King, one of our most consistently excellent screen actors, continues to spread her wings in this direction.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production companies: ABKCO Films, Snoot Entertainment
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Cast: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Christian Magby, Joaquina Kalukango, Nicolette Robinson, Michael Imperioli, Lawrence Gillard Jr., Beau Bridges, Aaron D. Alexander, Jeremy Pope, Chris Gorham
Director: Regina King
Screenwriter: Kemp Powers, based on his play, One Night in Miami…
Producers: Jess Wu Calder, Keith Calder, Jody Klein
Executive producers: Regina King, Kemp Powers, Paul O. Davis, Chris Harding
Director of photography: Tami Reiker
Production designer: Barry Robison
Costume designer: Francine Jamison-Tanchuck
Music: Terence Blanchard
Editor: Tariq Anwar
Visual effects supervisor: Johnny Han
Casting: Kimberly L. Hardin