One Night in Miami, the directorial debut by actress Regina King, currently running the film festival circuit, is based on a stage play by Kemp Powers, also a comparative novice in scriptwriting. The film showcases the talents of both, taking a clever original concept and carefully crafted dialogue, and allowing film techniques to expand the idea and make the most of it.
The story deals with an actual event that took place in 1964, a meeting of four black American celebrities in varying fields:
- Civil rights leader Malcolm X, played by popular television actor Kingsley Ben-Adir (Vera, High Fidelity, Peaky Blinders)
- Boxer and activist Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), later known as Muhammad Ali
- American football player Jim Brown, played by Aldis Hodge (The Invisible Man, Clemency)
- Pop singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr, who played Aaron Burr in the Broadway production of Hamilton).
All were well known and successful in their respective fields and all were involved to some extent in the ongoing civil rights movement. The film follows their evening together as it moves from casual socialising to an increasingly serious and personal discussion of the civil rights movement, and of their lives as Black men in mid-20th century America.
The film is necessarily heavy on dialogue, as the central focus is the discussion among the four men, comparing their experiences as Black Americans, and disputing over differing attitudes and approaches to fighting racism. However, creative film techniques keep the story from becoming a mere panel discussion. It layers implied commentary on top of spoken, irony upon irony, and allows the audience to see the background experiences that went into forming the attitudes and opinions the central figures now hold.
The occasion that brings them together is a celebration of Cassius Clay’s triumph in the ring, in a match that made him a heavyweight champion. The film opens on the fight, revealing Clay to be an adept fighter, but also overconfident and inclined to be careless when at an advantage. Clay has arrived at his hotel in Miami ready to celebrate with his friends, but first, the film takes time to introduce them via small but significant moments in their recent lives.
Sam Cooke is a successful recording artist by 1964 and has founded his own recording label but still finds some doors closed to him in a white-dominated profession. The film introduces him by replicating an uncomfortable performance before a resistant, all-white audience.
Jim Brown, a fullback since 1957 and a record-breaking athlete, is introduced by means of an incident away from the football field. He meets with a supporter from his home town in Georgia (Beau Bridges) in a small but significant encounter which movingly makes clear to Brown how much, and yet how shockingly little, race relations had changed since his childhood.
All four men attended Clay’s winning fight, and Malcolm X invites them all back to his hotel room to celebrate. There, Clay announces that he has been taking instruction in Islam from Malcolm and the conversation begins.
The background of Malcolm X is revealed sporadically, in warm but concerned phone conversations with his wife—carefully avoiding the hotel room telephone, for fear of listening devices—and his awareness of being watched from a distance by a pair of strangers. It becomes clear that he believes his days are numbered, that assassination is a possibility, and his resolve to accomplish what he can in the time left to him comes across. That includes convincing the other three men with him to adopt his own approach to achieving racial equality.
The discussion continues, sometimes illuminating, occasionally contentious. The action frequently moves outside the hotel room, either following characters as they leave the room, or digressing into flashbacks. These outside scenes provide background and commentary to the four-man conversation. Some of this commentary is understated but sharp—as when one of Malcolm’s bodyguards casually compares joining political-religious movement The Nation of Islam to joining an inner-city gang, as both, in his mind, are valuable chiefly as protection against racist attacks.
The ongoing conversation unearths many of the dilemmas faced by the four men, as talented and prosperous black men in the still largely segregated and intolerant US of 1964. There is a sharp contrast in attitudes toward worldly success: some of the men feel their success serves to create more opportunities for other Black Americans, and to integrate their businesses, arguably having more impact than political activism. Malcolm takes a harsher view, seeing men who believe their fame and success will protect them when they remain despised and persecuted no matter how successful or famous they become. This becomes the heart of their debate, which covers the risk of trivialising civil rights or crossing the line between acceptance by the white majority and pandering to them. The well-chosen cast does excellent work portraying the diverse, sometimes conflicting attitudes and personalities of the four men. Kingsley Ben-Adir is perhaps the most effective in bringing across Malcolm’s dedication to his cause, and the desperation that often comes across as harshness or fanaticism, without losing the character’s benevolent side.
In the course of a difficult, sometimes angry interaction, the men also find common ground. Even the two who are most at odds ideologically find a source of mutual respect. They share a common sense of discouragement at the lack of progress in civil rights efforts, and encourage one another in finding sources of strength within themselves, even as the film draws to a conclusion which unavoidably mixes optimism with hopelessness.