One Night in Miami comes with a high-concept premise that both promises some incendiary sermonizing on the Black experience in America and betrays its stage-play source material — a fictionalized account of a night-long discussion that took place between boxing legend Muhammad Ali (known then as Cassius Clay and played here by Eli Goree), controversial Civil Rights leader Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), soul icon Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and NFL Hall-of-Famer Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) inside a Miami hotel room on February 25, 1964.
Such a meeting did indeed take place on that night — moments after Clay was deemed Heavyweight Champion of the World — and screenwriter Kemp Powers (who wrote the original play as well) creates an ensuing discussion that not only serves as the basis for the entire film, but a sort of meta exercise wherein these historical figures’ clashing viewpoints represents the overall discourse taking place among the Black community during the Civil Rights movement.
Director Regina King (also a stunning actress in her own right) doesn’t try to interfere too much with any distracting visual choices or unnecessarily energetic camerawork. She understands her four lead actors are electric enough to make Miami work as a radio play, not to mention a movie. None of them are given short shrift but the heart of the movie’s tension comes between Malcolm and Cooke. Ben-Adir plays Malcolm with the same militant gravitas that Denzel Washington so convincingly exuded nearly 30 years ago; however, there’s a bit of a tenderness to Ben-Adir’s performance that allows the actor to make this interpretation feel uniquely his own. He’s fiery and outraged, yes, but once around friends whose confidence and ambition match his own, a vulnerable side occasionally slips through.
Malcolm has very strong opinions on what each of his three colleagues should start doing to help further the welfare of the African-American people and even stronger opinions on how wrong they’ve been going about it thus far. Cooke, whom we see bombing at a Copacabana gig in front of a mostly white audience upon his introduction, is squandering his platform by writing pop songs about love instead of racial struggles. Malcolm is additionally hoping to convert the fast-talking and cocky Clay, approaching the height of superstardom, to the Nation of Islam to break its message further into popular culture. Brown, the most amiable of the bunch, is hoping to make a transition into film acting, even though it sometimes means he has to play second fiddle to less-talented white actors.
This night finds all four men on the precipice of great change in their lives, and America’s right there beside them, obviously. Powers’ script mostly makes these parallels work, although the dialogue occasionally gets a little too sweaty trying to spell that out. One of the movies’ most riveting scenes, where Cooke and Malcolm debate the merits of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and its political messaging, is also undercut by dialogue that — while lavishly written — is nonetheless irritatingly self-aware. When Cooke is asked if he’s going to stop with all the frivolous love songs and finally write about all the “change” that’s happening among Black Americans, it comes across as self-satisfied in a way that doesn’t jive with the verisimilitude of the rest of the film.
And speaking of realism, in perhaps Miami’s finest achievement, every performer manages to bring a shared quality to their characters — a palpable sense of insecurity. Goree sells the motor-mouthed bravado of Cassius Clay basking in the aftermath of a championship win yet never dips into a broad imitation, never letting the viewer lose sight of his conflicting feelings about a conversion to Islam. The Academy will further risk its credibility if it chooses not to recognize Odom Jr., who brings the most humor and charisma to someone who might be more tortured than any of the rest. There’s no question that this ensemble is a contender for the best of 2020 and single-handedly warrants your seeking out Miami (which is now in limited release in theaters and will debut on Amazon Prime Video on Jan. 15, 2021).
Ultimately, the film never quite transcends the trappings of its stage-play source material. There aren’t many clear instances where King uses her filmmaking to add a fresh perspective to the story’s themes or characters in a way that may not have been possible onstage. For some, a faithful recreation of a stellar play will either way result in nothing less than a stellar movie. That’s a fair takeaway, and when the end result features actors with this level of talent posing questions this provocative, maybe it’s best not to gripe.