ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI starts with the risk of being an overly-talky and slightly contrived-feeling mix of portraits of well known historical black US icons. However, Regina King shakes off a slightly mechanical opening to set up a fascinating interplay of characters, allowing them each to take on symbolic significance and metaphorically represent the clash and overlap of ideas without diminishing the real-life achievements and struggles of each man.
The film follows four men in the aftermath of Muhammad Ali (still known as Cassius Clay at this point) defeating Sonny Liston – Ali, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Malcolm X, played by Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., and Kingsley Ben-Adir respectively. Each is on the cusp of a critical moment in their life. Brown, an NFL player, has shot his first film (which will become RIO CONCHOS). Cooke is questioning the audiences he plays to (“entertaining the children of bigots” as Malcolm X puts it forcefully later). Ali is about to announce his Muslim faith and his name change. Malcolm X has begun to question his relationship with The Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad.
In the initial stages, with the need to bring these figures together in the motel setting, ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI feels like it may be about to settle into a lightweight nostalgia supported by the iconography of each man (Ali chief among them in that regard). We see Ali in the ring, but without the dynamism that accompanied his ring exploits, for instance. We see the racism Cooke experiences as a performer in similarly pedestrian fashion. However, once the assembly of main characters is complete, the film settles into a fascinating interplay based on what each character wants to achieve, what the others feel they should strive for, and what either of those options represents for the civil rights movement in the USA.
Based on a stage play of the same name, written by Kemp Powers, the provenance is clear from the lengthy dialogue exchanges. However, rather than feeling claustrophobic, King gives ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI a natural feel with room for all characters. The film is not visually flashy – save for an overhead shot in an otherwise relatively flat fight sequence with Ali – but does enough with shot choices and the motel room environment to open it up and create tone. All men are on their feet during a critical verbal clash between Malcolm X and Cooke, for instance. A quiet confessional moment between Brown and Malcolm X has them seated close, heads bowed. There is no doubt the film is hugely dialogue-driven, but when the performances elicited by King are as engaging as this it barely registers but develops the characters.
Each performance captures the real person in a manner that feels genuine, rather than a caricature. A standout performance, however, comes from Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X. The performance has fire and passion, but Ben-Adir also brings forth the doubt and vulnerability that accompanied the final months of Malcolm X’s life. His haranguing of Cooke for not doing more for civil rights contrasts with the counter-points around how opulently Elijah Muhammad is seen to be living, and also Malcolm X’s infamous comments about the assassination of JFK. Ali’s conversion to Islam is questioned for its usefulness to his image and whether it hinders public perception of him. The film neatly encapsulates the idea that movements are composed of many approaches and opinions, and the fact that how to advance the common cause best is a tricky thing to define with diverse ranges of people invested in the outcomes.
The fact the film gets this across is mostly down to the performances, but it is often forgotten that directors are the ones to elicit them and for that Regina King deserves enormous credit. Her subtle touch allows a single evening to reflect on the perception and symbolism of the achievements of all four men and their relevance to today.