Review: One Night in Miami — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

This powerful film envisions a fictional night when four iconic Black men — Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke — gather in a Miami hotel room to discuss the emerging civil rights movement.

Scene from One Night in Miami

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One Night in Miami…

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Rating: R

Run Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

Stars: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr.

Writer: Kemp Powers

Director: Regina King

Streaming on Amazon Prime

Reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival

From the Westerns of John Ford to the comedies of Adam Sandler, movies about men and their friendships too often degenerate into testosterone-fueled spectacles of fistfights, hard drinking, and flatulence jokes. They’re often fun to watch, but be honest: When was the last time you and your buddies spent an entire night on the town boozing, brawling, and babe-chasing?

Ironically, it has taken a woman — first-time director Regina King, who won an Oscar playing a mom in 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk — to usher this supremely thoughtful film that uncannily captures the rhythms of male friendship. Based on a stage play by Kemp Powers, the film envisions a fictional night when four iconic 1960s Black men — Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), football star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) — all gather in a Miami hotel room to discuss how they plan to tackle the emerging civil rights movement.

The occasion that has brought them together is a fight: Ali (still know as Cassius Clay) has just gotten the best of Sonny Liston, unexpectedly rising to the rank of Heavyweight Champ at age 22. The fact is, each one of these men is at or nearing the apex of his fame: Malcolm X is about to leave the Nation of Islam and embark on a mission of preaching racial equality in the nation’s mainstream, Brown is retiring from football to become a movie star, and Cooke (“You Send Me”) has just negotiated a deal to own his own recordings — a breakthrough in the music industry.

Three of the four have briefly returned to Malcolm X’s hotel room expecting to head out for a celebratory night, but Malcolm X has other ideas. He sparks a lengthy conversation about how each one of them should use his gifts, power, and influence to advance racial equality.

Along the way they argue, pester, and laugh their way through each man’s unique perspective, evoking not only the unique social issues of the time — and our time, as well — but also the timeless challenges men face when they drop their guards and become genuinely accountable to one another.

Each actor seems born to play the role he’s assigned here. Gangly and focused, Kingsley Ben-Adir captures the essence of Malcolm X: an unquenchable fire filtered through the temperament of a devout man of God (perhaps not coincidentally, he made a splendid Barack Obama in TV’s recent The Comey Rule). As Ali, Eli Goree oozes with the same charm and animal magnetism he’s shown as Mad Dog on TV’s Riverdale. Aldis Hodge (Straight Outta Compton) personifies Brown’s quiet authority and smoldering vulnerability, chillingly revealed in a truly gut-wrenching flashback encounter with a seemingly charming old family acquaintance, brilliantly played by Beau Bridges. And Leslie Odom Jr., indelible as Aaron Burr in Hamilton, brings a boyish enthusiasm to Cooke that only makes more tragic the knowledge that, in just under two years, the singer would be gone, shot to death by a girlfriend.

Screenwriter Kemp Powers — who already deserves an Oscar nomination this year for the script of Disney/Pixar’s astonishing Soul — doesn’t even try to disguise the fact that One Night in Miami started life as a stage play. Virtually every scene plays out within the four walls of a mid-range Miami hotel room, and the characters trade soliloquies with theatrical bravura. Still, the film is propelled by performances as powerful as the ideas the writer embraces.

Of the four men we meet in that hotel room, only one, Brown, is still with us. Look for him today on YouTube, and you’ll find Brown still at it, leveraging his celebrity in the service of something even bigger than one of the biggest careers in NFL history.

I don’t know if Brown’s life of activism began on that Florida fight night. But in a medium where fantasies tend to be wishful thinking, this is one that feels so right it just has to be true.

Featured image: scene from One Night in Miami… (Patti Perret/Amazon Studios)

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