The night Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight boxing title, four black American icons met in a hotel room and had a conversation. They were Cassius Clay, Malcom X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown. Nobody knows what was said. What One Night in Miami presents, then, is tantamount to historical fan fiction. Regina King adapts the Kemp Powers play for the screen, divulging, through a series of conversations, what each man might have said about civil rights. It’s moderately powerful, because the figures are powerful, and powerfully portrayed.
Such a grandiose hypothetical relies entirely upon its performers. They’re all right, if not all presented as one monolithic single-voiced idea of the their times. Crucially, Eli Goree plays Cassius Clay with grace and swagger, his in-ring performance that opens the film especially credible. His character has a great central conflict: it’s the night of his first major boxing victory, and given his newly achieved stature, now feels emboldened to convert to Islam, to become Muhammad Ali. What Goree lacks is the charisma of delivery, not capturing the great wit of one of my favorite speakers and sports poets, without hardly any verbal flourishes, holding a relatively low energy considering it was the greatest night of his young life. Graciously, he’s surrounded by great historical company. Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcom X is astute and aspirational, actually the centerpiece of the film’s political conversation. The great bit between them is that Malcom X would shortly leave the Nation of Islam, and so he presents a great challenge, in his shifting perception. Pro footballer and actor Jim Brown, a very believable Aldis Hodge, also reaches a moment of reflection: is it any good to be in cowboy films, as a Black man, if you’re always being killed off halfway through? The film’s saving grace is Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke, an incredibly lived-in performance, with stunning vocals performed by the actor. The question for him, is whether it’s enough to perform and to be a Black man under the spotlight, or if it would behoove him to utilize his platform for the greater good.
Folded together, these four men present an interesting scenario. Because there is no record of the conversation, there is only room for artistic liberties. Given its roots as a play, Regina King does not take any cinematic risks. It achieves the same effect, roughly, that watching a staged version would, although the camera creatively assembles the group in several memorable postcard moments in history. You’ve seen some pictures and here they come alive in the frame. The shots are also claustrophobic and very tight, mostly working within the cramped confines of one hotel room. While the broader implications of the conversation are very interesting and define a moment of cultural catharsis where four men set out to change the world, it also feels immensely limiting. That all four men speak within the same voice, given their distinct personalities, and differences, the film wants for a more moving passage. It leaves us hoping, at any moment, that the group would celebrate and enjoy their stature, that one of the pivotal nights in sports history would offer more witty conversational avenues.
What must that night actually have been like? One Night in Miami is a valuable film, just for illustrating a moment in four famous Black lives, and a conversation that could have changed history. It’s a smart thought experiment, true to its stage version, if not less powerful as a movie. Regina King is a talent and it’s worth watching her shape the conversations. While they do not amount to anything as clever as their real life counterparts, it’s a fairly good attempt at framing what it must have been like. If the year’s films have taught us anything, historical fiction is king, and it’s all about putting us in the room where it happens.