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'One Night in Miami' review: Four kings

Stellar performances drive Regina King's film, which imagines a meeting between Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown

A still from 'One Night in Miami'
A still from 'One Night in Miami'

There’s always been a tendency in cinema to zealously guard against any impersonation of theatre. The influence of dance, painting and still photography on film are all encouraged—but a hint of theatre and purists start complaining about the action being stagey. This was an understandable concern in the first 50 odd years of cinema, with the medium staking its claim as an art form, though after 125 years you’d think they would stop worrying.

One Night In Miami is visibly derived from a stage play, and is none the poorer for it. Writer Kemp Powers adapts his own 2013 production, a speculative historical account of a meeting between four prominent African-Americans in 1964: boxer Muhammad Ali, Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke and football star Jim Brown. After Ali (then Cassius Clay) beats Sonny Liston to win the world heavyweight title, the quartet gets together at Malcolm’s invitation to party—though it’s a hilariously dour party, in a bare motel room, Nation of Islam guards keeping watching, no alcohol or food except ice cream.

Each of the characters is in a state of flux in their lives (so is the black community: the church bombings in Alabama happened a few months earlier). Malcolm is having trouble with the Nation’s top brass. Brown is embarking on a film career—a gamble where his football career is steady. Clay, despite his respect for Malcolm as a mentor, is having last-minute jitters about adopting Islam. And Cooke, though outwardly secure, has been shaken by a young white kid out of Minnesota and his songs about social injustice. In exposing these vulnerabilities, Kemp frames the unique challenge of black celebrity in America: what does it mean to be the successful and wealthy hero of a community that is always fighting for its rights?

The primary fault line is between Malcolm and Cooke, comically foreshadowed by the singer arriving at the motel before the others and looking disgustedly at the arrangements. Cooke just wants to celebrate, but Malcolm keeps needling him about his popularity with white audiences and his lucrative move from church-inspired singing to pop stardom. At one point, he plays Blowin’ in the Wind as an example of the kind of song Cooke ought to be writing, not knowing that Bob Dylan is already in Cooke’s head. The film is bookended by two Cooke performances: a disastrous one at the all-white Copacabana at the start, and the debuting of his epochal A Change is Gonna Come, written in response to Dylan, at the close. There's also a bridge—a gig in which Cooke, bombing in front of a black audience, does something magical.

One Night In Miami is directed by Regina King, a fine actor most recently seen in the HBO series Watchmen. In her first film at the helm, she draws wonderful performances from all four leads. Eli Goree is the scene-stealer, channeling Clay’s non-stop patter and bouncy enthusiasm. Aldis Hodge’s Jim Brown is quietly arresting, breaking up fights, content to watch his three talkative friends duke it out. Leslie Odom Jr, who originated the part of Aaron Burr in Hamilton on Broadway, is fascinating as the thin-skinned, mercurial Cooke (he also hits those signature high notes beautifully).

And there’s Malcolm, played by Kingsley Ben-Adir as a man of tremendous resolve, little humour and plenty of self-doubt. Ben-Adir’s speech patterns kept reminding me of Obama—and I later read that the actor shot this and The Comey Rule, a 2020 series in which he played Obama, simultaneously. Still, I suspect this was also a deliberate choice by Ben-Adir and King, encouraging the viewer to make a subliminal connection between two very different leaders. Denzel Washington’s portrayal in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1994) has a harder edge; Ben-King, by allowing his Malcolm to be rueful and somewhat desperate, brings an element of pathos not always associated with the famously strident activist.

There’s one patently off-key moment, when Malcolm and Clay are praying and the soundtrack becomes a vaguely Middle Eastern melody. Even in a film with American Muslims at its centre, Islam is somehow Orientalised. Apart from this, Terrence Blanchard’s score, and the film itself, are pleasingly spare and focused. This is, of course, the time of year when historically minded films are released, in the hope of catching the attention of Oscar voters. One Night in Miami doesn’t attempt anything novel. Instead, it’s an example of old-fashioned filmic virtues: smart, snappy script, tight ensemble, unobtrusive direction.

One Night in Miami is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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