Young, Gifted, and Black

‘One Night in Miami…’ speculates: What happened when Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown all hung out?

Exploiting the juicy what-if? dramatic possibilities of four major icons just hanging out, while also using petty digs to wound each other and heartfelt pleas to heal the pain, One Night in Miami… offers up cinematic catnip for cultural speculators. It’s apparently true that Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) chilled out together at Florida’s Hampton House motel on February 25, 1964, the night that Clay bested Sonny Liston in the boxing ring to became the heavyweight champion of the world. And Regina King, working with screenwriter Kemp Powers to adapt his original play, spins the alluring trivial factoid of this quartet tête-a-tête into a powerful fantasy.

★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Regina King
Written by: Kemp Powers
Starring:  Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr.
Running time: 110 min

Each man was arguably at the height of their powers. Malcom X’s controversial leadership of the Nation of Islam was attracting international attention and notoriety. Sam Cooke’s recording career and crossover appeal was starting to overcome color barriers. Clay was on his way to Greatest Of All Time immortality. And NFL running back Jim Brown was weighing how to steer his career well beyond professional football fame. What better premise than to be a fly on the wall for this meeting of minds?

Two of them would be dead within a year: Cooke shot down in a lover’s quarrel that December, and Malcolm X assassinated the following February. Those bloody fates haunt One Night in Miami…, and add a dreadful poignance to their rowdy, bawdy, caustic conversation. The everything-old-is-new-again traumas of that era’s civil rights movement couldn’t be more relevant for today’s audiences. Listening to these four men, so disparate in their passions and beliefs, wrestling in real time with what their legacies might be, gives this film an absorbing gravitas

What opportunities were in front of them and what opportunities could they create for themselves? What compromises might they each have to make, and what slights and slurs have they already endured? Most of all: what ceilings will they inevitably keep hitting in their own possibly futile pursuits of happiness? One shocking scene early in the film shows Jim Brown pay a house call to the warmest, kindest, most supportive sonofabitch racist you’ll ever meet.

These are still-young men, vibrant and vital, realizing that their fame and fortune is allowing them a path forward for people of color that didn’t exist before then. And this imagined encounter is a ripe opportunity to watch these bristlingly creative wits clash, iron sharpening iron as they jibe and support in equal measure. Clay is pondering conversion to Islam and life as Muhammad Ali, while Brown and Cooke can’t believe he’s on the verge of becoming what they call a “Moose-lim.” Malcolm X calls them Bourgeois Negroes. Brown wants to break into the movies, but the part he’s being offered is as “a sacrificial Negro in a western.”

Cooke, technically not a guest at the black-friendly Hampton House but booked into a lush room at rich white enclave the Fontainbleu, points out that he owns all his recording masters. Sure, he gets disrespected at the Copacabana singing milquetoast love songs like “Tammy.” But he’s on the verge of writing one of his greatest songs: “A Change Is Gonna Come.” The film intimates that that night’s encounter kinda-sorta inspired the velvety-voiced crooner to write that endearing, searing protest song. No matter: the canard gives King her bravura climax, a wrenching montage that plays out as Cooke debuts his song on national TV.

One Night in Miami… definitely falls into a Noble Cinema mindset, where the filmmakers’ intentions and abilities are almost de facto above reproach. But King proves herself to be another in a long line of actors-turned-directors who know how to draw out convincing performances from a willing cast—an even greater accomplishment, considering how these men need to navigate around that uncanny valley of celebrity impersonation, trading mimicry for invocation.

King also opens up the film as best she can, although the material’s theatrical roots still burst through whenever someone launches into an extended park-and-bark soliloquy. Imagined conversations don’t always make for great cinema—Nicolas Roeg’s aptly titled Insignificance took a play that put Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, and Joseph McCarthy all together into a hotel room one night in the 1950s. And Chrisopher Münch’s gay-curious romance The Hours and Times was his fictionalized, archly indie-film account of a 1963 weekend trip to Barcelona that John Lennon took with then-manager, closeted homosexual Brian Epstein. But One Night in Miami… acquits itself of the genre’s pitfalls to deliver a personal reckoning that also manages to feel as fun as it is sobering. “This is one strange fucking night,” says Brown. Strangely prescient, too, and deeply inspiring.


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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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