Regina King is an enormously talented actress, as well as an Oscar winner for If Beale Street Could Talk. Now it turns out she's also an enormously talented director. Her feature debut, One Night in Miami, manages to address racism, historical events, and the power of friendship, all in one fast-paced, highly entertaining film. For all its ambition, the picture never grows didactic. King and screenwriter Kemp Powers (Soul) get their ideas across in a manner that feels completely natural.
Set in 1964, the film is based on a real-life meeting between four prominent Black men who were in the process of changing the world. Boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) has just beaten heavyweight champion Sonny Liston and is planning to announce to the world his conversion to Islam. Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) is a star football player in the early stages of launching an unlikely movie career. Sam Cooke (Hamilton's Leslie Odom, Jr.) has made significant inroads in the white-dominated music business. Then there's Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) who's getting ready to break away from Elijah Muhammad.
The four friends are keenly aware that they have a degree of power and influence during the turbulent times. What they don't agree on is how to use those assets. Cooke, for instance, gets some flack from his pals for recording “soft” music they deem designed to appeal to whites. Clay's entrance into Islam at the same time Malcolm X is departing it also proves a sticking point. That's pretty much what One Night in Miami is – a perpetual back-and-forth in which the men alternately support and challenge one another during an evening in a Florida hotel room. The implication, of course, is that they collectively push themselves over the cusp of doing what each of them will become most well-known for.
Along the way, the movie gets at some hard truths about racism in America, then and now. An especially potent scene before the men meet in Miami shows Brown meeting with Mr. Carlton (Beau Bridges), a wealthy and prominent Georgian who gushes all over the football star, then reveals an unanticipated bigotry nonetheless. A later scene has Cooke defending his musical output, arguing that it may appeal to whites but, as the license holder to the songs, he's using their money to fund a successful Black business. Through its characters' interactions, One Night in Miami offers many thoughtful perspectives on the obstacles Black people face, as well as the creative ways they have found, and continue to find, to push through those obstacles.
One Night in Miami began as a play, and although it maintains that sort of staginess, the film never fails to engross, thanks to the extraordinary chemistry between the four main stars. Together, they create a portrait of friendship that's authentic. Eli Goree captures Clay's essence without veering over into caricature, Hodge conveys Brown's inner and outer toughness, and Odom nicely suggests Cooke's preference for subtle subversion. As for Ben-Adir, the actor escapes from the shadow of Denzel Washington, who perfectly played Malcolm X in Spike Lee's 1992 film of the same name, finding his own take on the man that makes him a perfect lynchpin for the story.
The performances make One Night in Miami fun to watch, while the ideas presented make it intellectually and emotionally stimulating. Regina King establishes a mood so that we feel like we're in the room with these men. We hang on their every word. At the end, as each of them takes a major step forward in terms of fulfilling their legacy as a civil rights figure, it becomes clear just how much important change they were able to help usher in. It's impossible to not feel inspired by that.
out of four
One Night in Miami is rated R for language throughout. The running time is 1 hour and 54 minutes.