Four friends and icons converge in stunning fashion in 'One Night in Miami'

Brad Keefe

"One Night in Miami" is a fly-on-the-wall telling of a meeting between four Black icons in 1964, based on a 2013 stage play by writer Kemp Powers that fictionalizes the night in historic context.

Its setup is a slow boil until these four men converge in a small motel room in Miami. Then it becomes an entrancing lesson in the internalized struggles of the civil rights movement.

After a context-setting prologue, we arrive in Miami on Feb. 25, 1964, the night a 22-year-old Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) defeated Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight boxing champion of the world.

Clay’s friend and NFL superstar Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) called the fight that night and had planned a post-victory celebration, but Clay invited him to a more low-key gathering in a hotel room where friend and Black Muslim minister Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) was staying.

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Another friend, soul legend Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), is first to arrive at the modest room at a Black-friendly motel in the Jim Crow South, a far cry from Cooke’s swanky room at Miami’s Fontainebleau, which was booked by his manager. On a celebratory night, Malcolm offers up ice cream, and the conversation becomes an examination of the present and future of Black Americans.

For director Regina King’s first foray behind the camera in a feature film, she is fearless in tackling something so ambitious. And the uniformly fantastic performances from her assembled ensemble show the benefit of having one great actor guiding the performances of others.

Goree and Ben-Adir step into the biggest challenges in portrayals of iconic figures who have already been portrayed indelibly onscreen by Will Smith and Denzel Washington respectively.

Ben-Adir’s Malcolm is also counseling young Clay towards converting to Islam, all while holding back his own disillusionment with The Nation of Islam and its leader Elijah Muhammad.

Goree brings Clay’s signature brashness and, just as often, levity to tensions that arise among the friends, as Ben-Adir brings Malcolm’s consciousness in encouraging all in the room to use their voice for a greater good.

Hodge’s Brown and Odom Jr.’s Cooke are navigating their own successes and reevaluating them and finding paths to take control of the terms.

Powers, who also wrote and co-directed Pixar’s recent “Soul,” places white racism on the edges of the story as a cloud that hangs over the reality. But “One Night in Miami” is a larger examination of the struggle for Black Americans to carve their own identity in a country that has fought for centuries to deny them the right to define their lives on their terms.

"Power just means a world where we're safe to be ourselves,” Clay says. “To look like we want. To think like we want. Without having to answer to anybody for it.”

That self-determination, a cornerstone of the so-called American Dream, has never been distributed equally among its citizens, as this movie reveals in stark terms.

Odom Jr., of “Hamilton” fame, somehow manages a standout performance in a film full of them. Tensions rise among the friends as Malcolm calls out Cooke’s catering of his performances for white audiences, as Cooke gets defensive about his own efforts to game the music industry to benefit himself and other Black artists.

The push and pull of four friends who happen to all be legends as they challenge and uplift one another is what makes “Miami” sing.

The latter section of the film is so strong that it tends to make it feel uneven, but Regina King has created a must-see film that will likely remain one of the best of this year.

“One Night in Miami”

Streaming now on Prime
4 stars out of 5

"One Night in Miami"