The two most fascinating words in storytelling are “What if …” One night in Miami A meeting did It took place in 1964 and brought together Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, soccer star Jim Brown and pop singer Sam Cooke. Nobody knows for sure what these famous friends were discussing in the privacy of a hotel room at a crucial time in their lives. This is where the script by the playwright Kemp Powers begins.
It’s 1964 and Cassius Clay has just defeated Sonny Liston for the World Heavyweight Championship. He’s at the top of the world, but instead of partaking in a big public outbreak, he drives to a motel in a black part of Miami to have a quiet feast with three good friends. He promised Malcolm X that he would embrace Islam and change his name to Muhammad Ali the next morning … but he doesn’t know that Malcolm has just broken ranks with Elijah Muhammad. The controversial leader needs the boxer’s approval, but his sense of fair play doesn’t allow him to lead his friend to a dead end.
Jim Brown is an NFL powerhouse, but he just got a taste of movie star and likes it. He can make more money, be just as famous, and not punish his body as in any game. Sam Cooke is a best-selling recording artist, but he’s not yet fully convinced a white fan base. Malcolm believes his boring songs are evading important topics that he should address.
Impressive. How do you humanize these legendary characters? What actors could be convincing enough to make you believe them, even if you remember the symbols they portray? And how do you visualize a play in one sentence so that it resembles a movie, not just a series of speeches?
This is the impressive feat that first-time director Regina King and playwright Kemp Powers have made in the league of four extremely talented actors. Eli Goree is reminiscent of the verbal Braggadocio by Cassius Clay and is equally convincing in the all-important boxing arena. Leslie Odom Jr., who received a Tony for his performance Hamilton, slides into the silky smooth image of Sam Cooke bombing on stage in front of a white audience in the nightclub Copacabana. Aldis Hodge takes on the stony face of soccer star Jim Brown, who knows his worth and has the slightest self-doubt of these four imposing men.
Kingsley Ben-Adir has possibly the most challenging since Malcolm X is such a towering figure and Denzel Washington’s portrayal remains fresh. This film does not show the Speechfire, although proceeding with caution. He can chat a little with the other three personalities, but never loses sight of his goal of corrupting Clay while the opportunity exists. One by one, he embroils his famous allies in debates about their role in American life and their responsibilities to the black community.
The fact that everything they discuss is still so relevant – if not more urgent than ever – makes this more than a mere history restoration exercise. The language crackles and the performances glow. If One night in Miami cannot deny its origins as a stage play, but can still hold us in its grip through several slow passages and deliver a climatic wallop.
This pays homage to the director, writer and a number of talented contributors including cinematographer Tami Reiker, production designers Barry Robison and Page Buckner, film editor Tariq Anwar and Terence Blanchard’s music. We never have reason to doubt the time and place we traveled to in this fascinating film.