In the “By the Book” author interviews in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, the paper’s editors usually ask the interviewee to assemble a fantasy dinner party of their favorite authors. A similar flight of imagination is at the center of “One Night in Miami,” the filmed version of a Kemp Powers play (Powers also wrote the screenplay), although Powers’ drama is based on a “party”—ice cream was served—that actually happened. On February 25, 1964, following 22 year-old Cassius Clay’s stunning victory over Sonny Liston for the heavyweight boxing championship of the world, four of the nation’s most prominent black men gathered in Muslim activist Malcolm X’s spare Miami motel room to “celebrate”: Malcolm, Clay (not yet Muhammad Ali), National Football League star Jim Brown, and pop singer Sam Cooke.
Of what those four men did and said, no evidence remains.
Of what those four men did and said, no evidence remains. In director (and Oscar-winning actress) Regina King’s film adaptation, woefully little celebration takes place, an unlikely scenario given the Champ’s need for applause and the monumentality of what he had just accomplished. Instead, the protagonists break out the vanilla ice cream as they debate the appropriate course of conduct for important black men in negotiating a racist white world.
The date is significant. 1964 was a liminal moment in postwar history, the end of the “long” 1950s, when consensus presumably reigned supreme, and the beginning of another era altogether, characterized by conflict and confrontation. As Powers’ screenplay reminds us, the Beatles had arrived in New York just weeks before Clay’s championship fight, and few yet understood what they would become. Several early scenes inform us that race was, and would be, the touchstone of the era: Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr. in a brilliant performance) facing a hostile white audience at his Copacabana premier; Clay at a UK match where the crowd cheers only for his white opponent; Brown (Aldis Hodge) sipping a lemonade on a Georgia veranda with a white “friend” (a cameo appearance by Beau Bridges), only to be reminded “you know we don’t allow niggers in the house.”
Inevitably, the men participate unequally in the discussions about race. Eli Goree’s Cassius Clay is brassy, audacious, self-admiring and confident to an extreme, but he’s bereft of ideas about race—even when dealing with the issue of whether to join the Nation of Islam—and the film does not succeed in making one appreciate how extraordinary it was for a black man to create space in a white world the way the shocking Clay did. Brown’s dilemma—whether to continue to play football or pursue a movie career—was real enough, but it has little political valence in Powers’ telling and doesn’t advance the discussion about race. Brown raises the issue of colorism with Malcolm—the impact of the shade of darkness of one’s skin—but the problem is presented briefly and seems intended merely to add some substance to Brown’s articulation of otherwise limited racial ideas.
The heart of the film is an ongoing, heated dispute between Malcolm (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Cooke.
The heart of the film is an ongoing, heated dispute between Malcolm (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Cooke. Malcolm makes the case for separatism and confrontation (the film references his “chickens come home to roost” response to President Kennedy’s assassination), as he insists that the men in the room must be leaders in the struggle against the “white devils.” Cooke, who had a stellar career as a cross-over artist, is the film’s advocate for some form of cultural integration, though he doesn’t use the word. Like Brown, he wants to make money and have agency, and argues that’s the way to have power in the world and to promote black artists, even if it means making deals—and accommodations—with whites (there’s some resonance with Chadwick Boseman’s Levee in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”).
Cooke is vital to the narrative because he’s the only one—as the film would have it—with the opportunity to change his life…
Cooke is vital to the narrative because he’s the only one—as the film would have it—with the opportunity to change his life course; the others already have made key commitments, and that includes Clay, whose last-minute doubts about joining the Nation of Islam have little dramatic impact and seem to function only to give a one-dimensional character a modicum of nuance. Malcolm, presented here as a nagging know-it-all (rather than the witty, acerbic and charismatic man he was), has decided to leave the Nation, and his premonitions of his own death can’t make up for the static quality of his character. His role is to radicalize the “bourgeois Negroes” in the room and to encourage them to lead the black movement in their respective spheres. That’s a worthy goal, but, as handled here, it doesn’t make for high drama.
The themes are hardly new, having been explored recently in a variety of excellent films, including “Get Out” (2017), “Black Panther” (2018), “Da 5 Bloods” (2020) and this year’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” another play adapted for the screen. “One Night in Miami” suffers in comparison, perhaps because its protagonists were real people, living the constraints of their real lives—in some sense, that is, beyond the reach of drama, or at least of Powers’ script. That it mostly takes place in one room doesn’t help.
One Night in Miami ★★1/2 (out of 4 stars)
Availability: Streaming Amazon Prime only; see JustWatch here for more availability in the future.
Director: Regina King
Starring: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Leslie Odom Jr., Aldis Hodge, Beau Bridges
Other Awards: More than 40 nominations and 13 wins, to date.
Runtime: 114 minutes