One Night in Miami movie review: Four US icons debate over what it means to be Black in America

In her directorial debut, Regina King adapts the Kemp Powers play One Night in Miami, which imagines the four Black icons trying to reconcile their private lives with their public spheres.

Prahlad Srihari January 14, 2021 08:12:13 IST

3.5/5

Miami, 1964. Cassius Clay has just won the world heavyweight boxing title. Proto-BLM activist Malcolm X invites NFL star Jim Brown and soul singer Sam Cooke to a victory party to celebrate the newly crowned champion. When they converge in the hotel room, Clay, Brown, and Cooke are surprised to find there's no alcohol, no music, and no party. All Malcolm X has in store for them is a night of debate and reflection with some vanilla ice cream.

In her directorial debut, Regina King adapts the Kemp Powers play One Night in Miami, which imagines the four Black icons trying to reconcile their private lives with their public spheres. The film reimagines and annotates history to remind us of the persistent inequalities of the present. The extrapolation gives a multidimensionality to the Black experience. By imbuing each character with a distinctive voice of his own, it allows for four well-founded but divergent views on the civil rights struggle. The ensuing arguments afford an individuality to the inner lives of these public figures forced to carry a heavy celebrity and humanitarian burden in trying times.

The ‘60s was a decade of promise and pain for Black Americans. There was the promise of emancipation, the opportunity to leave behind the legacy of slavery and discrimination. There was the pain of unfulfilled promises. Peaceful sit-ins and marches were met with violence. Martin Luther King was killed before he could realise his dream. So were Cooke and Malcolm. 

One Night in Miami movie review Four US icons debate over what it means to be Black in America

Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali in a Miami hotel room

Like all Black people in the mid-60s, the quartet of One Night in Miami too were at a crossroads. Clay is set to embrace Islam and become Muhammad Ali. His spiritual journey was guided by Malcolm, who is in fact planning to leave the Nation of Islam due to a conflict with its leader Elijah Muhammad over political direction. Brown is considering retiring from football to focus on acting. Cooke is at the peak of his singing career, but accused of playing to white audiences.

When the personal is also political, it becomes all the more difficult to reconcile aspirations with responsibilities. This is the heart of the many conflicts in the movie. Before Clay, Malcolm, Brown and Cooke come together that night, King serves us vignettes which present them not as Black icons, but as every other Black man reminded of their place in white-majority America. Cooke's dream of performing at New York's Copacabana is marred by a booing white audience. Brown drops by the home of a white benefactor, who confines the NFL star to the porch and staunchly refuses to let him inside any further. It is shocking how contempt comes as easily as compliments in a single conversation. Malcolm is constantly monitored by the FBI.

The prologue gives them inner motivation and offers key context to the positions they take in the various arguments over the course of the night. With a large part of the action limited to the hotel room, the film has some of the usual pitfalls of a stage-to-screen adaptation. By design, it relies on verbal acrobatics to do the heavy lifting. Even if it walks like a play, and talks like a play, King tries to ensure it doesn't just look like a taped version of a play. As she transposes the story to a bigger canvas, she frequently moves the action outside the four walls of the hotel room to the rooftop, to a nearby liquor store, and to the occasional flashback. The camera brings a restless energy to the proceedings and helps articulate the collective anxiety of Black people in the '60s.

King pairs off her four stars in fascinating verbal duels. Her treatment is anything but hagiographic, presenting them with all their foibles and vulnerabilities intact. Cassius Clay is not just a larger-than-life archetype. Eli Goree’s knockout performance gives a man known for his swagger and superlatives an inner conflict. Kingsley Ben-Adir's Malcolm X is self-righteousness personified, and Leslie Odom Jr's Sam Cooke is all self-determination, and thus make for excellent sparring partners. Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown brings a coolness and composure to the heated proceedings.

One Night in Miami movie review Four US icons debate over what it means to be Black in America

Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X

In two id-plumbing portraits, Malcolm and Cooke fervidly defend their point-of-view on the civil rights movement. Malcolm inspires, and often offends, the others into action. He wants them to use their platforms as celebrities to speak out against racial injustices and shock the American conscience. He is an interventionist, who sees them as weapons in their civil rights struggle. But Cooke doesn't want to be a mere weapon. Malcolm also criticises Cooke for writing romantic ballads for white audiences, instead of anthems to bolster the Black cause. Cooke argues the case for empowerment through popular music. Malcolm counters, claiming Cooke is nothing but a tool for the white establishment, advocating instead for Black self-sufficiency. But that’s what Cooke wants too. He was after all one of the first Black artists to start their own independent record label.

Even as they argue and quarrel, what unites them is far greater than what divides them. In a memorable exchange, Malcolm X admonishes Sam Cooke for not writing a protest anthem akin to Bob Dylan's 'Blowin’ in the Wind.' He provokes him by suggesting, "A white boy from Minnesota speaks more to the struggles of our movement than anything you’ve written in your life.” Dylan's rhetorical questions — "how many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free?" — became a powerful rallying cry for the civil rights movement. Cooke wrote "A Change Is Gonna Come" in response, which certainly works as a companion piece. In it, he sings in hope: "It's been a long, a long time coming. But I know a change gonna come. Oh, yes it will." 

But the answer for racial equality has been blowin' in the wind for such a long, long time, you begin to wonder if change is ever gonna come. King, like Dylan, believes change begins with questions, and her film contends its answers can only be found through that vital engine healthy democracies cannot exist without: debate.

One Night in Miami starts streaming on Amazon Prime Video on 15 January. 

Watch the trailer here –

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