One of the first movies I reviewed last year (“The Invisible Man“) ended up atop my Best Movies Of 2020 list. I have a feeling that the first movie I’m reviewing this year, Regina King’s “One Night In Miami,” may come close to repeating that feat. At the very least, it will be in my Top Ten.
The bulk of the movie takes place on a single night (February 25, 1964), after Cassius Clay (who had not yet changed his name to Muhammad Ali) beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight boxing title. Afterwards, he went to a motel room to hang out with his friends Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown. The latter two thought it was just going to be a quick stop before they hit some nightclubs, but Malcolm had other ideas. He wanted the four of them to spend the time together, with no outsiders, while he pushed Clay into becoming a Muslim and joining his movement.
But before those festivities begin, we see all four characters suffering ignominy. In a fight before his shot at Liston, Clay is knocked down by the British boxer Henry Cooper. Sam Cooke fails to win over the older, white audience at the Copacabana. Brown is treated with warmth by an old mentor from the south, but is not allowed across the threshold into the racist’s house. Malcolm is in the midst of a rift with Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation Of Islam, that will eventually force him to leave.
When the four men end up together in that motel room, their closeness is clear, but so are some schisms in their friendship. Malcolm is the one driving wedges into those cracks, going after the other three for not being better role models for young Black men and pushing for change. While the foursome did in fact meet that night, no one knows exactly what was said. But the dialogue by Kemp Powers, who wrote the stage play the movie is based on, crackles with energy and heat.
In her feature-film directing debut, King captures each of her leading men beautifully, both in closeup and at a distance, to convey the claustrophobia of the room and the stakes of the conversation. There’s not a single false shot in the movie as she keeps our rapt attention to the goings-on.
A movie like this would not be possible without outstanding performances, and “One Night In Miami” delivers four of them. Kingsley Ben-Adir has the difficult task of playing Malcolm without doing an imitation of Denzel Washington, who captured the civil rights leader to a T in Spike Lee’s biopic nearly two decades ago. Ben-Adir pulls it off with just the right intensity. Similarly, Eli Goree has to match Will Smith’s terrific rendition of The Champ in the Ali biopic. He succeeds, too, with the right amount of braggadocio and playfulness. Aldis Hodge is semi-stoic as Brown, the NFL great who was about to change careers by appearing in “The Dirty Dozen.”
But it’s Leslie Odom Jr. who shines the brightest as Cooke, a soulful singer with a great voice, whose broad smile is turned into a frown when Malcolm challenges him to write songs that are more in tune with then-current events. Odom, who was hailed for his work as Aaron Burr in “Hamilton,” proves his talent once again in a flashback that shows Cooke having to entertain and calm a crowd in Boston after the electricity goes out.
There’s very little about “One Night In Miami” that doesn’t work. Like the musical “Million Dollar Quartet,” it is a wonderful snapshot of an evening with four legends, each of whom was about to embark on a new path.
I give “One Night In Miami” a 9.5 out of 10. It begins streaming today on Prime Video.