‘One Night in Miami’ Review: After the Big Fight, a War of Words

On Feb. 25, 1964, at the Convention Hall in Miami Beach, Fla., Cassius Clay — not yet known as Muhammad Ali — defeated Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion of the world. That’s hardly a spoiler, and the fight isn’t the main event in “One Night in Miami,” Regina King’s debut feature as a director. The movie is about what happens after the final bell, when Clay and three men who witnessed the fight gather for a low-key after-party that turns into an impromptu seminar on fame, political action and the obligations of Black celebrities in a time of crisis.

The host is Malcolm X, played by Kingsley Ben-Adir less as a confident, charismatic orator than as a smart, anxious man facing a crisis of his own. We’re reminded in a few early scenes of the rift opening up between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad, his mentor and the leader of the Nation of Islam. Frustrated by Muhammad’s autocratic dogmatism and appalled at his sexual predations, Malcolm sees Clay (Eli Goree), who is gravitating toward Islam, as “the ace up my sleeve” — a prominent ally who will help him break away from the Nation.

Joining the boxer and the minister in a modest suite at the Hampton House motel are the Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and the singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.). Each is at the peak of his career, and also at something of a crossroads. Brown, increasingly fed up with the ways Black athletes are exploited and commodified, has his eye on Hollywood. Cooke’s most recent effort to attract a white audience — a gig at the Copacabana in New York — was met with a chilly reception.

Malcolm tries to push Cooke in another direction, arguing that the job of successful Black artists isn’t to court white approval but to use their fame and talent to advance the cause of their own people. The dramatic nerve center of the film, adapted by Kemp Powers from his own play, is the quarrel between Malcolm and Cooke, who have known each other for a long time and whose intimacy is laced with rivalry and resentment. It’s a complex and subtle debate that implicates Clay and Brown, and that reverberates forward in history and the later actions of all four.

Cooke, who drives a red sports car, smokes cigarettes and carries a flask in his jacket, stands in obvious temperamental contrast to Malcolm, who is both the straight arrow and the nerd of the group, offering them vanilla ice cream and showing off his new Rolleiflex camera. Among the pleasures of “One Night in Miami” is how it allows us to imagine we’re glimpsing the private selves of highly public figures, exploring aspects of their personalities that their familiar personas were partly constructed to obscure.

This is also, I think, an important argument of Powers’s script: History isn’t made by icons, but by human beings. Fame, which provides each of them with opportunities and temptations, comes with a cost. The fine print of racism is always part of the contract. What Cooke, Brown and Clay share is a desire for freedom — a determination to find independence from the businesses and institutions that seek to control them and profit from their talents.

Malcolm, who faces different constraints, urges them to connect their own freedom with something larger, an imperative that each of the others, in his own way, acknowledges. Malcolm’s manner can be didactic, but “One Night in Miami” is anything but. Instead of a group biopic or a ready-made costume drama, it’s an intellectual thriller, crackling with the energy of ideas and emotions as they happen. Who wouldn’t want to be in that room? And there we are.

What we witness may not be exactly what happened. I don’t know if Malcolm X really traveled with a copy of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” in his luggage so that he could make a point about protest music by dropping the needle on “Blowin’ in the Wind.” There are aspects of the characters’ lives that are noted in passing but not really explored — notably Cooke’s and Brown’s treatment of women. Malcolm’s wife, Betty Shabazz (Joaquina Kalukango), appears in a few scenes, as does Barbara Cooke (Nicolette Robinson), but they are marginal to a story that is preoccupied with manhood. Still, there is enough authenticity and coherence in the writing and the performances to make the film a credible representation of its moment, and King’s direction makes it more than that.

An actress of singular poise and intensity — see “Watchmen,” “If Beale Street Could Talk” and, going back a little further, “Poetic Justice” — she demonstrates those traits behind the camera as well. There are a few boxing and musical scenes, but most of the action in “One Night in Miami” is talk. King’s attention to it as nimble and unpredictable as the dialogue itself, and creates an atmosphere of restlessness and spontaneity, that nervous, exhilarating feeling that this night could go anywhere.

Clay, the youngest of the four, is the one who most vividly embodies that sense of possibility. Goree captures the familiar rasp and melody of the voice, and also the champion’s wit and exuberance. There haven’t been many people who could match his giddy, unapologetic delight in being himself, and Clay can look a bit callow next to Cooke and Brown, who have logged more years and paid more dues in the world of celebrity. But Goree shows that Clay, as playful as he could be, was also serious and brave, qualities that would come to the fore a few years later when he risked his career and his freedom to oppose the Vietnam War.

The seeds of that action and others, this movie suggests, were planted that night. The shadows of a complicated, tragic future hover over the motel furniture. Within a year of that night, Sam Cooke and Malcolm X would both be killed, one in a Los Angeles motel, the other in a Harlem ballroom. (Only Malcolm’s death is mentioned in the film). The later chapters in Muhammad Ali’s life, and in Brown’s, are part of the crazy, contentious record of our time.

And “One Night in Miami,” at first glance, might be taken as a minor anecdote plucked from that larger narrative. It doesn’t make grand statements about race, politics, sports or music. It’s just a bunch of guys talking — bantering, blustering, dropping their defenses and opening their hearts. But the substance of their talk is fascinating, and their arguments echo powerfully in the present. This is one of the most exciting movies I’ve seen in quite some time.

One Night in Miami.
Rated R. Smoking and Swearing. Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes. Watch on Amazon.

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