The year is 1964. A young Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) has just defeated world heavyweight champion Sonny Lister, and in a hotel room in Miami he celebrates with Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). As Brown later remarks, this is about to be “one strange fuckin’ night”.
One Night in Miami (2020) marks the directorial debut for actress Regina King, a cinematic adaptation of Kemp Powers’ successful stage play of the same name that imagines a night of conversation between the four Black icons. Based on a real-life meeting, the film explores the unique bond shared between the men as they navigate a transitional moment in all of their lives. Not only is the civil rights movement picking up speed outside, but the men inside that hotel room are facing momentous personal changes themselves. Clay has chosen to convert to Islam (soon changing his name to Muhammad Ali), Brown is about to leave a highly successful career in football, and Cooke is battling with himself over his reluctance to publicly take a political stance. But it is X’s particular situation that binds the men together.
Fearing that the end of his life is near, Malcolm gathers his friends in a room guarded by two bodyguards to try and inspire them to be more vocal in their support for Black liberation. The night is shrouded in paranoia, and for good reason. At this point in his life, X was being tracked by the FBI, and we know that the activist would be assassinated just a year after this story takes place. Naturally, X assumes that his hotel room has been wired, and so he leads the men onto the roof to confide in them about how he has begun to document his life in what would become his autobiography.
For him, it seems that anything less than loud and unabashed support is pointless, so he spends the night encouraging the men to use their voices and their public platforms to make a change. He immediately butts heads with Cooke for seemingly pandering to white audiences, and when Cooke questions how he is supposed to incorporate his political beliefs into his performances, X emphatically tells him “Brother, you could move mountains without lifting a finger.”
A lot of the magic of this film comes directly from its stellar cast. Though he may be part of an ensemble, Kingsley Ben-Adir’s screen presence makes him feel like a natural born leader. He gives the performance of the year as Malcolm X, embodying the grace and power of activist with ease. His co-star Eli Goree gives a similarly astonishing performance as a young Cassius Clay, encapsulating what it means to be “young, Black, righteous, famous and unapologetic”.
Goree’s unfiltered joy and vibrancy complements Ben-Adir’s calmness perfectly, and he plays Clay with the comfort of someone who had known the man himself. If Ben-Adir’s commanding recital of X’s famous teachings somehow fails to have an effect, then it is Clay’s definition of power that will, bringing to mind the ongoing fight for Black liberation. According to Clay, “Power just means a world where we’re safe to be ourselves. To look like we want, to think like we want, without having to answer to anybody for it.” Though these words were written with the context of the 1960s in mind, they couldn’t ring more true today.
One thing I’m particularly grateful for is the tender way in which King portrays X’s dedication to his faith. Malcolm X is an important historical figure for many Muslims, and we often mourn the legacy that could’ve been had history not branded him an extremist with ideas too radical for a civilised society. It is the care with which King depicts X guiding Clay through a prayer and the gentle shots of the two kneeling together that capture the man that existed beyond the tough exterior. The gentle tone with which X admits that by leaving the Nation of Islam he is “becoming more Muslim than ever” cements this as one of the more sympathetic portrayals of X’s relationship with his religion that we’ve seen on screen.
For many actors-turned-directors, their first time behind camera is usually a practice run, a stumbling block on their way to creating something better. King, however, has managed the rare feat of making an unforgettable film with her debut. One Night in Miami… is touching and inspiring, but perhaps the most impressive part of this film is how King handles four heavyweight names with a kind of mastery you’d expect from a seasoned director. This film will almost definitely become as iconic as the men it is celebrating, but it somehow never feels forced. Together with Powers, Regina King has flawlessly translated a script made for the stage onto the screen, effortlessly creating one of the best films of the year by a mile.