What happens when you put Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and the athlete formally known as Cassius Clay in a room together? You get one of the most passionately written, exquisitely acted, and masterfully directed films of the year. On February 25, 1964, Clay defeated Sonny Liston, becoming the heavyweight championship of the world. While the upset made headlines, that’s not the only reason why this night was historic. The aforementioned black legends all met following the fight, although we’ll likely never know what they talked about. One Night in Miami is billed as a “fictional account” of that night, but the performances, dialogue, and themes all ring true.
Even if Denzel Washington’s Oscar-nominated turn of Malcolm X will always be the definitive onscreen portrayal, Kingsley Ben-Adir has given him a run for his money. Where Washington covered several chapters in Malcolm’s life, Ben-Adir manages to encapsulate his character in one brief period. Ben-Adir plays Malcolm as an unyielding figure who’s confident on the surface, but he can’t look at a stranger without wondering if they’ll bring about his end. While Malcolm is ready to die for his ideals, his greatest fear is that his family gets caught in the middle. Ben-Adir is the glue who holds this exceptional ensemble together.
Malcolm X was assassinated less than a year after the events of One Night in Miami. Knowing that his days are numbered, Malcolm encourages Brown, Cooke, and Clay to continue the fight. Clay is already prepared to convert to Islam and change his name to Muhammad Ali. With his newfound title as the champ, though, he does begin to second-guess himself. Eli Goree dominates the screen as Ali, contending with Will Smith’s portrayal. The cast is rounded out by equally captivating performances from Aldis Hodge as Brown and Leslie Odom Jr. as Cooke. Of the four men, Cooke is the most resistant to use his platform in the civil rights movement. This fuels some of the film’s most heated conversations about race, responsibility, and personal sacrifice.
Hodge is especially strong as Brown. Although more understated than his three co-stars, Hodge delivers a nuanced performance that proves acting is reacting. In an early scene, we see Brown visit a wealthy southerner played by Beau Bridges. Bridges’ character is generally welcoming and affectionate, making us briefly forget that this is set in the 1960s. With his final line, however, the place and time hit us like a pile of bricks. The reaction on Hodge’s face says it all.
Kemp Powers adapted One Night in Miami from his stage play. He also served as a co-director and co-writer on Pixar’s Soul, giving us two of the year’s greatest entertainments. Regina King made her claim to fame in front of the camera, but she delivers a stunning feature directorial debut here. While the film’s theatrical roots are present, Tariq Anwar’s editing, Tami Reiker’s cinematography, and King’s direction are so engrossing that it’s easy to forget. They make us feel like we’re in the room with these four icons, hanging on their every word. 2020 gave us several powerful movies about the black experience, and few were more thought-provoking than One Night in Miami.
One Night in Miami streams on Amazon Prime starting 1/15/2021.