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‘One Night in Miami’ (review)

On the historic night when 22-year-old Cassius Clay (the future Muhammad Ali) defeated Sonny Liston to become the new heavyweight boxing champion of the world, he celebrated with NFL star Jim Brown, Civil Rights activist Malcolm X, and singer Sam Cooke in a Miami hotel room.

These Black legends all really hung out on February 25, 1964 and playwright Kemp Powers imagined what they talked about in his play One Night in Miami, which he’s now adapted into a riveting film. Oscar and Emmy winner Regina King deftly directs this adaptation, which has these men celebrating, challenging each other and nearly coming to blows in the course of one evening.

The film begins with individual moments for each character, including Clay’s triumph in the ring and Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.)’s disastrous debut at an elite nightclub.

And we see the bizarre double standard applied to Black celebrities when Brown (Aldis Hodge) is greeted enthusiastically at the home of a wealthy white fan (Beau Bridges), who sings Brown’s praises.

Until Brown offers to help him move a heavy bureau and is told, “We don’t allow n*****ers in the house.”

It’s not until the foursome meets up that the film starts to really cook. All of the men are at a pivotal point in their lives: Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) is on the outs with the Nation of Islam. He’s relying on Clay, whom he’s been advising, to announce he’s become a Muslim, a move that could ruin the boxer’s promising career. Cooke is still smarting from his reception at the Copa and Brown wants to keep his new film career on the downlow.

They’re all vulnerable and confrontational by turns. The biggest conflict is between Malcolm X and Cooke. Malcolm chides Cooke for being “a monkey dancing to an organ grinder” for white audiences. He challenges him to do more for the cause. An indignant Cooke points out he’s doing more for Black people thanks to his label, where all his artists like Bobby Womack get ample royalties from their songs.

Ben-Adir (whose previous credits include The OA, Peaky Blinders and High Fidelity) is a revelation as Malcolm X, a man who knows he’s running out of time. He’s being monitored and possibly can’t even trust his own bodyguards. His is the standout performance of the movie, but Odom, as the flashier, less political Cooke, returns fire for fire.

Clay is played with fitting youthful braggadocio by Eli Goree of Ballers and Riverdale. It’s arguably the hardest role to nail, since he’s the celebrity most people know best.

Brown is the quietest character, but Hodge also gets some great lines, such as in a one-on-one where he tells Malcolm that he’s nobody’s “weapon,” wryly adding, “I always find it kind of funny how you light-skinned cats end up being so damned militant.”

The essential question of what they, as leaders and celebrities, owe to each other, themselves, and their community runs through the entire film.

Powers’ screenplay captures a crucial moment in time and the dialogue rings true to what we know about these men.

It’s also a terrific showcase for these four actors and a dazzling debut for King (who’s directed several TV episodes) as a feature film director.

Watching this movie and knowing that Malcolm X would be dead within a year is haunting. Possibly less well known is that Sam Cooke would also be gunned down just months after this historic evening. My one quibble with the film is that it never mentions Cooke’s equally disturbing fate.

Rating: 4 out of 5

One Night in Miami debuts on Amazon Prime on January 21.

* * * * *
Produced by Jess Wu Calder, Keith Calder, Jody Klein
Screenplay by Kemp Powers based on his play One Night in Miami
Directed by Regina King
Starring Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr.,
Lance Reddick, Nicolette Robinson, Michael Imperioli, Beau Bridges

 

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