Matthew at the Movies: One Night in Miami (2020)

Directed by Regina King (Voice of Huey and Riley Freeman from The Boondocks!), One Night in Miami follows Cassius Clay, after defeating Sonny Liston, celebrating with Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown as they discuss what it means to be a Black man in America.

Screenwriter Kemp Powers, who also wrote Soul (2020), adapted his own play, also called “One Night in Miami”, which is based on a somewhat true story. All four men were good friends and did in fact spend the night of February 25th, 1964 together, but the exact words exchanged is not known. Powers, after doing extensive research on the four men, wrote an approximation on what they might’ve talked about. He did not want to deify these men; he wrote them as flawed and troubled as any other human being. 

The night finds the four men at major turning-points: Malcolm X was preparing to leave the Nation of Islam, Clay had just defeated Sonny Liston and became the heavyweight champion of the world, and was about to announce his conversion to the Nation of Islam and name-change to Muhammad Ali, Brown was preparing to leave the NFL and pursue acting, and Cooke was trying emerging publicly as an activist. Each of them troubled with insecurities and worries but possess the strength and drive to keep going. 

The all-star cast consists of Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X, Eli Goree as Cassius Clay, Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke, and Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown. All four men bring something unique and worthwhile to the table. Ben-Adir, standing in the shadows of Denzel Washington, makes Malcolm X his own without copying any of the other men who have played the part. Goree is a knockout as Cassius Clay, bolstering the same charm and confidence as the boxer from Kentucky. Leslie Odom Jr. is pitch-perfect as Sam Cooke, one of the greatest singers ever and Hodge is fantastic as Jim Brown.

There are two beautiful scenes, both involve Odom Jr. singing Cooke’s songs (‘Chain Gang’ and ‘A Change is Gonna Come’), and they are some of my favorite scenes in recent movie history.

The majority of the film takes place in one room, an apartment, where the four men talk. If you don’t know how to engage the audience visually with little-to-no variation in scenery or look, the audience will be bored. King attains something similar to what Sidney Lumet did with 12 Angry Men (1957), she keeps it interesting and engaging, and not just because of the four performances, her placement of the camera can either elevate the tension of the conversations or give the audience room to breathe. 

The central conflict is between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke, Malcolm X thinks Cooke’s music could be of better use if he was more vocal about the ongoing Black struggle, while Cooke thinks his music is an inspiration to the Black community already. The conflict is interesting enough, with both sides making convincing arguments, but the performances of Ben-Adir and Odom Jr. really sell it.

In one scene, Clay, Cooke, Brown, and Malcolm X head up to the rooftop of an apartment building. Malcolm X, with a camera, takes a photo of the other three men, capturing a momentous occasion where four of the most influential Black men, at that time, met up. A camera captures a moment in time and preserves it in amber. Forever stabilized and frozen.

King and Powers achieve this exact sediment, by preserving these men and what they might’ve been thinking at the time. One Night in Miami is a marvelous movie. A near-perfect cast, an amazing script, and never boring or trite. (5/5)

The film is available to watch on Amazon Prime.

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