It’s a strange sight. Fresh off witnessing his pal Cassius Clay become the heavyweight champion of the world, soul singer Sam Cooke sits alone in his room. Actually, it’s a motel space Malcolm X has rented out for Cooke and several other Black luminaries at the center of 1960s American culture, but Cooke is the first one to arrive… and he looks more comfortable here by himself, finding peace while strumming a guitar, than moments earlier when he stood in the ring with Clay, holding hands up after the new champ’s TKO victory over Sonny Liston.
But then that is one of the remarkable strengths of director Regina King and writer Kemp Powers’ One Night in Miami: It approaches four larger than life figures who loomed tall above the mid-20th century and reveals each to be, in his own way, an introvert. Yes, weeks before he changed his name to Muhammad Ali, even Clay drops boasts of being The Greatest to concede “I’m good,” admitting to self-doubts over the Liston bout.
These are the benefits that come from King and Powers—the latter drawing from his stage play of the same name—using extreme artistic license to put Ali (El Goree), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and football star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) alone together for most of One Night in Miami’s running time. But while the situation may be fictional, the textures and paradoxes it reveals among these four real-life friends is luminously authentic. It’s also a feat more lasting than traditional biopics, which posit themselves as allegedly true accounts of a person’s entire life. Instead One Night in Miami, which just premiered at TIFF, prefers examining the legion of pressures facing Black artists and leaders who hold the double-edged sword of America’s undivided attention.
At one point in the film, Sam criticizes Malcolm, saying he’s greater than just the fiery persona seen on television. “Maybe [that’s you], but you were also so much… more.” One Night in Miami seeks to explore just how much more.
The construct of the psychological deep dive is simple enough. On the night Cassius beat Liston after six rounds, Malcolm arranged a small party with his aforementioned friends and celebrities. Each is at the top of the world in their given field: boxing, football, music, and politics. Yet none realize when they arrive to the motel that it’ll just be them, plus two Nation of Islam brothers standing outside as security.
Malcolm is using this get-together to announce among friends that Cassius is converting to Islam, and that Jim and Sam should also get on board with the good work. This is not to say he necessarily means conversion, though he’d clearly welcome it. But Malcolm himself is less than a month away from leaving the religious and political movement he’s successfully courted Cassius to join—much to Clay’s soon-to-be anger. Indeed, Malcolm is using this night to slowly hint at his own plans of breaking away from NOI leader Elijah Muhammad, and his hopes for each man to do more to help their Black brothers and sisters calling for change. The conversations that arise are not spoken gently.
By adapting Powers’ play, King reveals a flair for direction and, perhaps not surprisingly, working with actors. An Oscar and Emmy winning thespian whose credits include If Beale Street Could Talk and HBO’s Watchmen, King is not new to directing; she’s helmed episodes for numerous television series before. Yet One Night in Miami is her first directorial effort intended for the big screen, and with it, she announces a visual confidence that can overcome the stagebound quality that bedevils most play-to-film transitions, including this one. For Powers’ screenplay can occasionally be heavy-handed in the film’s first act while the picture lays a vast expositional foundation.
However, King overcomes these limitations with as much visual distraction and ringside panache as needed to get them to where the heart of the movie is, and where Powers’ script begins to sizzle as all four outsized personalities butt heads in the same space. It’s also where King allows her ensemble to sing, even if Odom’s dead-on imitation of Cooke’s velvety vocals is the only actual crooning.
Each of the four key performances recreate the well-known tics of their historical personages. And in this arena, Goree is a delight. With wind in his sail after winning the heavyweight belt, his Cassius is so nimble in his dancing and prancing that it’s a wonder his feet ever touch the ground. Yet whereas most biopics, particularly in the last few years, have leaned into the legend of its subjects, One Night in Miami seeks to imagine a psychological truth that’s far slipperier, and far more rewarding.
In this context, Ben-Adir’s Brother Malcolm may be the most revelatory. In contrast with Spike Lee and Denzel Washington’s electric depiction of the civil and human rights activist, there is something slightly subversive about King and Ben-Adir’s interpretation. Here is the firebrand who preached African American separation and just several months before the film’s February ’64 setting referred to JFK’s assassination as “chickens coming home to roost”—a statement that gets him no shortage of grief from his friends in One Night in Miami—yet beyond his moral disgust at Elijah Muhammad’s affairs with young secretaries in the NOI, this version of Malcolm is full of second-guessing anxiety and a pained inner-life just bubbling behind the horn-rimmed glasses.
He wants to do right by the Black community, but just as he challenges Jim Brown and Sam Cooke’s lack of political activism he is challenged by their rebukes; if he’s the political leader hanging with the artists and athletes, is he little more than the nerd trying to run with and influence the jocks? Of course the verbal conflict between Malcolm and his brothers is greater than that.
At its heart, One Night in Miami is the eternal struggle about the different sensibilities pulling at any Person of Color with social power, be they intentionally political or not. Unlike the athletes among them, Cooke attests he’s the only Black man here not taking a paycheck from a white man, owning his own recording masters and producing other Black artists. But at that point in ‘64, none of his songs were about how a change is gonna come, nor were his personal aspirations higher than winning the approval of white audiences and tastemakers on the pop charts.
Conversely, Cassius is in his own way an entertainer, but one who enjoys playing antagonistic heel to white mainstream sensibilities. In this way, every one of them is confronted with the uncomfortable power afforded from standing in the crossroads of American pop culture—and is being pulled either toward art or commerce, moral clarity or the innocuous soft power of apolitical affability. No matter which way they go, however, the destination of Black Power feels within reach.
There’s no easy answer about which is the right direction for the characters or the audience, especially as the film is haunted by the beleaguered feeling that 60 years after these men’s struggles, ones which would take Malcolm’s life, Black leaders and entertainers are still having the same debates. Still trapped at the same intersection. Despite the tough decisions, big and small, these men made, the full change is yet to come.
One Night in Miami premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, Sept. 11.