“One Night in Miami” Movie Review

     Following in the foot steps of several recent and successful adaptations of popular stage plays with “Fences”, and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” among them, “One Night in Miami” brings together four 1960s icons, as they engage in a historic night of fiery banter amongst lifelong friends.  The film marks the feature directorial debut of Regina King, who skillfully brings these larger than life characters to the screen in the prime of their respective lives, while working from a script by Kemp Powers, adapted from his play. 

     Then known as Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), the legendary boxer had just defeated Sonny Liston, becoming the heavyweight champion in the process, in the first of their memorable battles on February 25, 1964.  What ensues is a hotel room gathering, initially planned as a sort of celebration, comprised of Clay, Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), singer and songwriter Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and civil rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir).  Considering the personalities involved and the issues at stake, the story has all the ingredients for an intense, yet spirited and emotional debate about the future of the Civil Rights Movement.

     So how did these four men, who each have considerable celebrity and financial resources, find themselves together in what appears to be a hotel room well beneath their means?  Clay, who had just fought at the Miami Beach Convention Center, was required to leave the area because of Jim Crow segregation laws, forcing him and his trio of well known friends to take refuge in a hotel miles away and in an African American neighborhood where their presence was permitted.  Is it any wonder why the evening’s subject matter would quickly revert from reverence for Clay’s achievement to the politically and racially charged ideologies behind making positive change for their underserved communities?

     And the passion from these men flows with their every word, albeit from significantly differing viewpoints on what steps need to be taken and how progress should be defined.  Brown and Cooke seem to be cut from the same cloth, measuring success on their paychecks and the ability to be independent of their white counterparts within the business world.  Malcolm has taken the then 22 year old Clay under his wing, and has shown him the path to becoming a Muslim.  The loud and ego driven pugilist carries a certain persona in public, but is reigned in when in the presence of Malcolm, who seeks to parlay his star pupil’s fame into a higher level of notoriety for his cause.  A notion that doesn’t sit well with Clay, nor the others.

     Mind you all of this is fictional.  No one but the four men inside that room know exactly what was talked about that night.  And since only Jim Brown is still with us, one can only ponder how they may have spent their time after one of the greatest bouts in boxing history.  But given what we know about their personalities and how each of them are remembered, Powers’ dialogue is likely closer to the truth than we know.  This was a time when Jim Brown was undisputed as the best football player in the NFL, and had just set, in 14 games, the single season rushing record of 1863 yards, a feat that still stands today as the best in Cleveland’s franchise history.  He was also beginning his career as an actor, having starred in the 1964 western “Rio Conchos”.  There is no doubt he was a force in that room after having earned the credibility that came with his reputation for toughness on the gridiron.

     Cooke, ofter referred to as the King of Soul, was already a mainstream performer and prolific song writer.  And his thirst for success mainly centered around breaking barriers once thought impossible.  Why settle for a song to debut on the R&B charts when we can have a song hit number one on the Pop charts?  His celebrity allowed him to perform at the Copacabana in New York City for who Malcolm points out in one of the film’s most heated discussions are mostly rich white people.  In much the same why Black athletes of today are pushed to use their platforms to speak about social justice, Malcolm wanted Cooke to utilize his immense talents to write songs about the Civil Rights Movement, something he had yet to do.  Of course, at the time, barriers aren’t broken when your act is comprised of referring to your audience as “white devils”.  A common refrain from the Nation of Islam then and today.

     If you watched Muhammad Ali during his fighting career, you would probably be surprised to find out he’s actually the quiet one in the room, but he’s also the youngest and the most impressionable.  King stages one of Clay’s contender fights against Henry Cooper in which his in ring antics saw him struck solidly with a left hook and barely saved by the bell when the fourth round ended.  But humble would never be a part of Clay’s shtick (the origins of his persona are revealed in the film), and we see him go on to defeat Liston rather easily, as his self appreciation quickly becomes a reality.  

     The fight sequences are important because they set the stage for an even bigger battle within the walls of the hotel room.  Some questions are answered.  Others are left another day.  But one can learn so much from simply listening to what these guys are saying.  At times, the speeches are mesmerizing, as all four actors capture the screen in much the same way the people they are portraying once did themselves.  Something that shouldn’t be surprising given King’s ability to act at the highest level.  The “If Beale Street Could Talk” Oscar winner has masterfully directed her cast to do the same.  GRADE: A