You could move mountains without even lifting a finger.
It almost never matters if these things are true – those oft-repeated tales of icons meeting, shared and shared again until the stories become akin to myths in their own right. That, of course, makes it all the more remarkable that this one really is true.
One Night in Miami finds four such icons together in one place – for much of the night, in one room – each on the cusp of something greater. They’re not quite the figures they’ll become: boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) is yet to take the name Muhammad Ali; Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) is weeks away from leaving the Nation of Islam; athlete Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) is about to retire from the NFL; musician Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) has only recently started his own record label. There’s a sense that One Night in Miami isn’t just taking place in a hotel, but on a precipice – the weight of history is concentrated here, albeit kept largely out of frame for much of the film’s runtime. That’s perhaps One Night in Miami’s most impressive achievement: not all the ways in which it evokes these icons, but all the ways in which it quite pointedly doesn’t. This isn’t a film about four great men of history, it’s a film about four friends, celebrating, arguing, and laughing together.
Indeed, there’s rarely a sense that One Night in Miami is intimidated to tell this story – it very likely wouldn’t work if it was. Instead, there’s a certain grace and poise to how it approaches these men, and an admirable frankness in its depictions of their doubts and insecurities. Undeniably it’s a very affectionate portrayal, marked by an obvious respect – but it’s a respect that doesn’t shy away from finding and appreciating vulnerabilities that icons aren’t typically afforded. Part of this is Kemp Powers’ script; there’s a delicacy and a precision to it, but a certain ruthless efficiency too, not a line wasted in its effort to understand these men.
More crucial, though, are the performances. Kingsley Ben-Adir is perhaps the obvious standout, his mannered affect giving way to warmth and whimsy, fears and anxieties that the cultural memory of Malcolm X often doesn’t allow. (Arguably his is the most difficult role – having to accommodate the greatest weight of audience expectations – but then that’s true of each role in its own way.) That having been said, none of the four leads are shortchanged here – Powers’ screenplay is impressively balanced in its structure, a genuine ensemble piece that gives each actor the opportunity to shine.
One Night in Miami is also, of course, Regina King’s directorial debut. You wouldn’t guess it; it’s not just a confident debut, but one that makes it look genuinely easy. King’s direction is capable and assured, and she injects a real sense of momentum to the film – One Night in Miami feels very theatrical, its stageplay roots easily noticed, but King translates it to screen well. Again, much like Kemp Powers’ script, what’s most impressive is how comfortable King is in depicting these men – it’s not a stilted, weighty biopic, but instead something quite watchable. In the end, it’s light but not lightweight, earnest but not prosaic, bracing without losing any of its levity; there’s something very charming about this film, and the careful line it so seemingly effortlessly walks.
It’s not hard to see why King might’ve been drawn to this script. At the heart of One Night in Miami is a question about the relationship between art and activism: how each perceives the other, interacts with the other, and ultimately isn’t so different from the other. Some of the film’s best scenes grapple with this idea, what it means to be an entertainer in an unjust world, and how best to use the power granted to an entertainer; Leslie Odom Jr shines during a heated confrontation between Sam Cooke and Malcolm X, a confrontation that is in a sense the real point of the film.
One Night in Miami does not – and, of course, could not – resolve that question. There isn’t an easy answer: not for Ali, Cooke and Brown then, nor for King and her cast today. What’s striking, though, is the film does more than just gesture at these ideas, but genuinely engages with them where it can; it’s a very nuanced and considered piece, more successful than the biopics it’ll be compared to because it’s concerned with ideas and themes beyond strict biographical detail. That does make it, admittedly, all the more noticeable when the script stops short – discussion of “economic freedom” entirely elides Malcolm X’s communism, an omission that quietly speaks volumes about art, activism, and commerce today.
Nonetheless, though, it’s still an impressive film, and one that’s well worth watching – One Night in Miami is dynamic and lively, and sure to prove memorable for a long time to come. There’s a sense, almost, that King and the four leads are all on a precipice of their own – that this film is the precursor to something bigger for them too, another step on the way to even greater heights. On the strength of One Night in Miami, it’s clear that whatever’s next for them each will be a sight to see.