On February 25, 1964 in Miami Beach, Florida, heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston met Cassius Clay in the ring for the first of their two famous fights. Clay emerged victorious, earning the title and propelling the career of the man who would later become known as Muhammad Ali. Regina King’s directorial debut, “One Night In Miami,” is a fictional account of what happened before and after that day’s fight, when Clay (Eli Goree) and his friends Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr. ) and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) get together to relax, debate, argue, and celebrate. These people are all celebrities in their own right, but to each other, they are simply friends and acquaintances who aren’t afraid to challenge each other’s views on Black America’s present and future.
Adapting the play, screenwriter Kemp Powers peppered the screenplay with historical facts and truths about each of the characters. The result is a riveting drama that sometimes evokes Spike Lee and Reggie Bythewood’s “Get On The Bus.” Both films allow us to sit down with black men and hear them engage with one another with honesty and freedom that only they can fully enjoy in the absence of White America. Without seeing the eyes of the “polite friend”, these people took off their masks and dived headfirst into the refreshing and deep “keep it a hundred” pool. I’ve quoted Ossie Davis’ line “Purlie Victorious” before, but it fits here too: “Being Black can be a lot of fun when no one is watching.” These guys know it, and “One Night In Miami” shows us.
This is an excellent film, full of impressive performances and thought-provoking speeches and arguments. Brown and Ali are larger than life as sports figures on TV and as characters on the big screen. Ali played himself in “The Greatest,” and Will Smith earned an Oscar nomination as Ali as well. Sam Cooke was one of the greatest singers of his time, performing concerts and performances that you can easily find on YouTube. And if Malcolm X hadn’t been electrifying in his speeches and autobiography, Denzel Washington immortalized it in Spike Lee’s 1992 masterpiece. One can’t envy the intimidating efforts this cast put in this film.
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However, each actor excels at his part, expertly handling their individual moments as well as their ensemble scenes. Odom, the Tony winner for “Hamilton,” is pure joy singing Cooke’s songs, leaning into the show even when he’s just casually singing to himself. He is today’s biggest star, witnessing the rise and conversion of one sporting figure and his retirement to another. He is also in a room with civil rights forces facing his own change through his own crisis of faith in a spiritual leader. Cooke didn’t see how his voice could be as powerful a weapon to his people as Malcolm’s speech was, and he was a little annoyed that his successful music business venture wasn’t seen as a means to help society. In one of the few times the film has left its present day, Cooke is seen salvaging a disastrous concert performance by having audiences amplify the power of his a capella performance with his hit song, “Chain Gang. Odom’s musical performances practically rocked the screen; not without reason he ends the film with Cooke’s Civil Rights classic, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
By that time, Brown was breaking records as the Cleveland Browns, ravaging the field, and earning the admiration of fans everywhere. Powers uses Brown to highlight how small Black humanity is, regardless of one’s celebrity. Beau Bridge had an unforgettable cameo as Carlton, a resident of Brown’s hometown, St. Simmons, Georgia, who knows the Brown family and proudly says he’s from the same town as the future Hall-of-Famer. His reunion with Brown seemed welcoming and friendly until Brown offered to help Carlton move some of the furniture. Carlton nonchalantly reminds Brown that he never “allows n-gers in the big house.” Hodge let his face tell his story; no matter how big you are, you are still not as good as the average white person.
Verbally, Goree and Ben-Adir have the biggest shoes to fill. They play fast talkers, men who attract attention based on the words they speak and the rhythm when they say them. Clay sells feed tickets about his prowess while Malcolm peddles Black Power and Black enlightenment. The two bond closely in “One Night in Miami” as the main plot point is Clay’s conversion to the Muslim faith as a follower of Elijah Muhammad. Clay was more than a huge advantage to Malcolm, as Clay was serious and pious about his conversion, but Malcolm himself had doubts about his future in the Nation of Islam. Goree is convincing in the ring in the two fights presented here, and he’s also as funny and fast as his real-life counterpart, even using an accent without going overboard. It’s a night to celebrate,
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