Four icons of 1960s Black culture didn’t actually gather in a Miami hotel room on the night of February 25, 1964, to discuss important personal and societal issues, but playwright Kemp Powers’ imagined version of that meeting feels genuine. Regina King effectively adapts Powers’ One Night in Miami into a feature film (with a screenplay by Powers himself), expanding the scope of the piece while retaining the focus on the discourse among four ambitious, influential men.
The movie’s first half-hour establishes where these four men are in their lives, all superstars in their own particular worlds and struggling to balance fame and power with the continued second-class status of being Black in America. Activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) is about to break with the Nation of Islam and is growing increasingly concerned about government surveillance on himself and his family. Boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) is poised to take the world heavyweight championship and is getting ready to announce his conversion to Islam (and pending name change to Muhammad Ali). Singer Sam Cooke (Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr.) is torn between making pop music for white audiences and R&B for his core Black fans. And football player Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) is exploring a movie career for his post-NFL life.
Following Clay’s victory over Sonny Liston to clinch his title, the four friends converge in Malcolm’s hotel room, guarded by stern members of the Nation of Islam, for what Cooke and Brown think is a victory party, but is actually a summit convened by Malcolm as an effort to get these mainstream celebrities to join him in speaking up about civil rights. The bulk of the movie involves the heated discussions among the character as they work out their issues with each other and with their own paths in life, and there are times when it can feel like a class presentation about civil rights history.
But Powers does more than deliver talking points from the mouths of famous people, and King (making her feature directorial debut) transcends the stagey limitations of too many play-to-film adaptations. All four lead performances are strong, especially Ben-Adir (who previously played Barack Obama in the Showtime miniseries The Comey Rule) as Malcolm, who is strident and earnest but also a little desperate, relying on support from his friends as he plans to start a new organization away from the established Nation of Islam. The movie presents Cooke as his counterpoint, a shrewd businessman working within the system and reluctant to engage in the kind of inflammatory rhetoric that Malcolm espouses.
The strength of One Night in Miami is that it makes both sides of that argument effective, while also showing how each point of view reflects an individual personality. Clay and Brown fall somewhere in the middle, and of the four characters, Brown has the least consequential arc, serving more as a bridge and a peacemaker among the other three. All four feel like real, multidimensional people, and it’s easy to imagine Powers and King creating compelling full biopics about any of these men. The occasional forays outside the hotel room, including a flashback to a momentous Cooke gig with Malcolm in attendance, provide just enough context to enrich the occasionally circular policy arguments.
One Night in Miami sticks pretty closely to its specific moment in time, although the creators can’t help indulging in a few clunky nods to looming future events. The closing title card details only Malcolm’s fate, and his impact on society is clearly the one that the filmmakers consider the most important. But despite the weight of history coming down on all four men, their one night together still feels like a hangout session among friends, and the movie’s greatest achievement comes in always finding the humanity in such larger-than-life figures.