On February 25, 1964, a young boxer name Cassius Clay stunned many by becoming heavyweight champion after dethroning Sonny Liston at the Convention Hall arena in Miami Beach. It is this historic night that Regina King centres her debut feature film One Night in Miami around. Adapting Kemp Powers’ stage play of the same name, King presents a fictionalized account of that night through the eyes of Clay, who was on the verge of becoming Mohammed Ali, NFL star Jim Brown, musician Sam Cooke and activist Malcolm X.
Coming together for the historic fight, and party afterwards, the four friends dive into heavy conversations that touch on everything from the price of fame to the state of the Civil Rights movement. On top of the usual banter and conflicts that come with friendship, each man has his own set of issues to navigate.
Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) is dealing with a faltering romantic relationship and his desire to breakthrough musically with white audiences. Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) is also hoping to take his career to the next level and is contemplating leaving football to pursue acting. Originally preparing to join the Nation of Islam, Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) wrestles with whether it is the right decision for his career now that he has been crowned champion. While grooming Clay to joining the brotherhood, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) finds his rift with the Nation’s leader Elijah Muhammad becoming more tense with each passing day.
While the Malcolm X arc occasionally threatens to overshadow the other plot threads, King does a great job of juggling the various characters. Each man is at a crucial point of change in their lives. They desire to take complete ownership of their careers and life, but are constantly met with one hurdle after the next. Barriers put in place by a society systemically designed to keep Black individuals from reaching the same level of success and equality of their white counterparts. As Powers’ script skill fully captures, attempting to break the glass ceiling is an exhausting and difficult task, especially when everyone has their own vision for what tool they should be using.
In emphasizing that there is no one size fits all pathway to achieving racial equality, One Night in Miami reminds viewers that everyone has an important role to play. Whether one is an activist on the ground or an entertainer on stage, using the gifts that one is given to evoke positive change is what is important.
In some ways One Night in Miami is the film Green Book desperately wanted to be. A period piece that draws parallels to today’s racial climate while presenting the issues in a safe prestige film packaging. The type of film that offers plenty of food for thought without making those who, as Brown notes, “pat themselves on the back for not being cruel to us” uncomfortable. What Peter Farrelly’s film failed to realize though, and King and Powers understand, is the importance of allowing those on the receiving end of racial hardship to be the drivers of their stories rather than a passenger within it.
While King shows early on the various ways in which society attempts to box them in, she allows each man to speak his truth free from the gaze of whiteness. Though there are some moments that feel better suited for the stage than the screen, the ensemble performances more than make up for the film’s minor missteps. Ben-Adir and Odom Jr. are particularly great as Malcolm X and Sam Cooke respectively. Guided by King’s assured and skilled directorial hand, the actors ensure that the characters remain riveting and relatable despite their ideological differences. By focusing on four successful and vastly different men, One Night in Miami effectively captures that the Black experience is not a monolith.