'One Night in Miami' is set on February 25th, 1964. Political activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), boxing champion Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), pro footballer Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) meet in a hotel room to hang out and exchange ideas against the shifting and tumultuous backdrop of the 1960s.
Actress Regina King has made quite an impression with her directorial debut. On the surface, it would appear to be a straightforward enough drama. Yet there's always something else brimming beneath its surface.
Based on a play by Kemp Powers, who also adapted the screenplay, 'One Night in Miami' imagines an emotionally heightened, debate-driven evening where four immensely influential figures, who were friends in real life, met. The aftermath of said meeting will be well known to all who know their history. Malcolm X would be assassinated less than a year after the date of 'One Night...'
The subtleties of racism (and not so subtle instances) when Sam Cooke performs make for a powerful evocation. We also witness Ali in two boxing matches, thrilling yet brutal, complemented by an effective soundscape design for ones that follow. Ali (still known as Cassius Clay at this point in his life) has brought Malcolm to the Hamptons hotel where he's staying for "spiritual support", much to the chagrin of his investors.
The Hampton hotel room where they meet their colleagues becomes a space where the four men can be safe (albeit Malcolm expresses his fear of stalkers who are just outside the motel, waiting for him), join together and be themselves. Having begun as a night of banter, the evening becomes ever more intense, with intelligent and challenging conversation in this gathering of incredible artists reigning. Harmony and disharmony have it out, making for an all-enveloping watch.
All the acting is very good, and it's a poignant account with genuine feeling. A moment where Malcolm and Cassius pray in a hotel room proves simple yet stirring. Another wonderful moment comes when Sam (played by Leslie Odom Jr., namely Burr in 'Hamilton') gets the crowd back on side for an acapella performance. Fighting breaks out between Malcolm and Sam as the former chastises the latter for compromising his art for the white audience, and for not using his platform for activism.
Eli Goree brings Ali's youth and confusion to the forefront while Brown ('Straight Outta Compton' star Aldis Hodge) just wants to keep the peace. Kingsley Ben-Adir is perhaps the most impressive as he demonstrates the power of Malcolm's oration skills, how many would come to hang on his every word, even as he is being challenged for his views.
Regina King’s direction is really remarkable, though one could argue the cinematography (Tami Reiker – ‘The Old Guard’) is a little conservative. Then again, this is likely owing to the film's origins as a play. In any case, the atmosphere is electric and performances awe-inspiring. A great conversation starter as well.
'One Night in Miami...' is streaming on Amazon from Friday, 15 January.