“One Night In Miami” Review

One Night In Miami is what it sounds like, a tale of one night spent in Miami, and it is much more as it’s a night shared between Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown in one hotel room in one of the most vibrant cities in the world. The night in Miami on February 25, 1964 is the night Muhammad Ali defeated Sonny Liston, and when four legends and close friends at the height of their fame got together. The night makes for a powerful directorial debut of actress, Regina King, known for Poetic Justice, Higher Learning, Friday, A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, If Beale Street Could Talk, etc.

Muhammad Ali (played by Eli Goree), then known as Cassius Clay, was in a bout and had been in many bouts leading up to 1964, and what became of that bout takes up the energy of One Night In Miami. “I’m over here,” Ali’s memorable charisma and bravado is all over the film from the opening, as Henry Cooper is trying to keep up with the lightning fast skills of the greatest of all time. If there’s anything viewers should know of this great film, which was first a play written by Kemp Powers in 2013, it is that Ali is not to be played with inside the ring or out, especially against the greatest competitor of white opponents and systematic racism, and that is a thing to be said about all of the other prominent figures in the film.

The words “powerful” and “prominent” are both understatements for this film and its figures, but power and prominence resonate throughout it. The scene transitions from Ali to Sam Cooke (played by Leslie Odom Jr.) singing at the Copacabana to an all white audience glaring at him silently. The silence of the white audience at the Copa is the moment that inspired Sam Cooke’s fight for civil rights during the 1960’s, who was vocal and whose music gave rise to the movement. The music of Sam Cooke was a soundtrack for the 1960’s, and he is to be understood even in the opening scene as a figure who went through tumultuous feats on his way to success, thus knows the importance of his success. “They got souls, and every living thing can have that soul tapped into,” Sam Cooke says later in the film when questioned about the incident at the famous Copacabana. One thing to highlight is how One Night In Miami follows closely the story of Sam Cooke and his struggle to integrate his black, soul music into a white industry, and it does so brilliantly with moments that show Cooke’s early rise above racism in the 60’s.  

The next scene introduces Jim Brown (played by Aldis Hodge) visiting an old family friend, Mr. Carlton, in his hometown of Georgia where they discuss football and other various things over two glasses of lemonade. The inclusion of an interaction with white people in this scene is interesting, setting the scene for the politics of the football star. Brown in 1964 was a fullback for the Cleveland Browns and was on his way to becoming an NFL champion. Mr. Carlton first calls Brown by his full name, James Nathaniel Brown, and then affectionately calls him “Jimmy” and encourages Brown as he laments over a loss to the Packers. Mr. Carlton seems to be a mentor and friend until he tells Brown, “We don’t allow n***ers in the big house” after Brown offers to help him move furniture in his house, and it leaves the football star standing there rattled and angry. This scene with Mr. Carlton doesn’t just leave Brown rattled and angry, but the realism of a classic racist encounter which we have all heard stories about from the era of civil rights leaves anyone watching with a sour taste and we can assume what’s to come. The film doesn’t let in assumptions, however, but the sincerity of Brown’s reaction leaves you with the correct choice that he chose, and that’s to walk away to join his famous friends in one night in Miami. 

Lastly, in the final shot of the four in separate scenes, civil rights architect Malcolm X (played by Kingsley Ben-Adir) is shown in his house with his wife, Betty Shabazz, and they are having a conversation about Malcolm’s role in the Nation of Islam and concerns over his safety after having watched a speech he gave on television. The civil rights leader reassures her, because of his leadership and his spiritual beliefs, that he will be fine and he has an idea, which is the premise of the entire movie. Malcolm X is right, and using his gift of being the civil rights leader that he was, he acts as the moderator or mediator of his friends social and racial struggles in the film.

The film is more than just a collection of scenes of the four figures; it is a narrative told through the four figures with facts, honest and humorous tales, and a relatable meaning that should be embedded in our history and retold in our current moment. The introduction of each figure in the separate scenes sets the tone for their personalities and introduces each of their various endeavors, such as Ali’s famous swimming pool photo by Yet Schulke as the boxer was training to fight Sonny Liston and Sam Cooke’s musical dream, as he carries along a guitar and hums. The tension really intensifies when they come together in a suite reserved for them at the Hampton House Hotel where the men talk about everything from ice cream, their endeavors, religion, and of course, racism and the movement they are each going to use to combat inequalities. One Night In Miami is more than a fictionalized account of this one night in Miami, but watching the four actors interact as these prominent figures turns the film into a real and passionate, subtle and tense recollection of a rare event.

The night doesn’t end without heated disagreement during the discourse of the four men. The four men argue about each other’s politics and beliefs, questioning each other’s views, which further pushes for the importance of social justice and the solution being a round table, peaceful dialogue between four of the world’s greatest leaders. One such argument is between Malcolm and Cooke, where Malcolm questions Cooke over his gig at the Copa, insisting that the white people do not understand his soul music under the climate of racism and there’s nothing that the soul singer can do to alter their minds. This prompts Cooke tries to defend his music against an adamant Malcolm. The conversation reaches a boiling point, and sparks a much larger debate about race and art, two of the challenges these four men are facing and which the film driven by creativity is tackling. Malcolm mends his relationship with Cooke later when he is recounting another story at a show in Boston, “Brother, you could move mountains without lifting a finger.” Ali and Brown are there. Brown and Malcolm embark on a lengthy one-on-one that continues Malcolm and Cooke’s discussion about race and art. Brown starts off jokingly, “I find it funny how you light skin cats end up being so damn militant,” and it begins a tangent by Brown on the historical and modern complex issue of colorism, and Brown even points out how it affects black people more than white people and society as a whole. This is where Brown tells Malcolm, “One thing white folks are masters at is tapping into our passions to the point where we forget about the important stuff,” and Malcolm challenges his notion saying that Brown likes being the “hero of the NFL” and he calls him, Cooke, and Ali “our greatest weapons.” Brown is persistent in his stance, and tells Malcolm that he’s not anyone’s weapon and that white people and the system like to use the stars, such as himself, Ali, and Cooke and pat themselves on the back. 

One of the other most important scenes during the debate happens when Ali and Cooke go to a local liquor store, and are approached by two admiring teenagers for an autograph, which inspires a one-on-one about their priorities in the movement in their car before they depart. Ali asks Cooke, “What do you want to do?” The singer tells him, “I want a party,” further cementing Sam Cooke as a shining light amidst hard times and Odom Jr.’s portrayal upholds that light. The four of them in the Miami hotel reinforces the truth that they were close friends, and it also revisits the well-documented friendship between Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, which could have been a film on its own. Malcolm and Muhammad were in an earlier scene praying together. As told by history, Malcolm X is the one who influenced Muhammad Ali to convert to Islam, and he does so in the film, changing his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. Most of the movie is spent in a room talking and debating, and it makes you feel like you want to spend one night with them or do the things that they are doing. The story that they are telling and its purpose of social justice, art, history, and inspiration jumps right through the screen.

In one night, the acting and portrayals of four of the most important people in human existence come full circle, and it is not an easy thing to do. Capturing the confidence of Muhammad Ali, the soul of Sam Cooke, the ruggedness of Jim Brown, and the intimate protest of Malcolm X is not an everyday thing, but Ben-Adir, Goree, Odom Jr., and Hodge accomplish it. The actors known for their different works (Odom Jr. Hamilton, Goree Ballers, Ben-Adir The OA, and Hodge Straight Outta Compton) show their expertise in their own craft by portraying the four figures and the different qualities of each enhance the necessity for a film like it, especially Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke, who is a singer in real life, and when you hear Leslie sing, you hear Cooke. When Ben-Adir wears glasses to look like Malcolm, and then takes them off when he is debating, the power in it shines bright. The resemblance of Aldis Hodge to Jim Brown and when he speaks, you feel the presence of the football star. And Eli Goree, whose first name sounds like Ali, takes everything under his wings when he imitates Ali’s speaking voice and the way he walks and acts, telling jokes and smiling as he looks at his freshly cut fade and muscular build in the mirror. It is all breathtaking and astonishing. Seeing the interaction of all these figures at once stresses the importance of a couple of things. One thing is that it is a story, and the other is that it is a story to be told at a specific time and to a specific audience and for the purpose of reliving the ideas of some of our greatest leaders without interruption. One Night In Miami isn’t a movie subject to a watered-down biopic, but a contemporary movie with a narrative that is relevant to today’s issues, and nothing can be more relevant than that. 

Out of Regina King’s directorial debut, comes a story of brotherhood, civil rights, and legacy. King’s attention to the male prowess as a woman director, a black woman director, is especially admirable and shows the impact that these four have on all humankind. There should be, or at least makes you want to see another movie with the same four actors. The film promotes brotherhood between them and young, positive black actors, which is a rarity and is often fighting against racism and diversity problems in today’s film industry. King directing such a film shows the often hidden support of women behind men and their movements. In her very first film, Boyz n the Hood, she plays a supporting role behind men and a strong male narrative. Her movie is an ode to men and the movement, and she uses the men in her own industry, and King does it in beautiful recollection form. It really isn’t a recollection; it is a revival. It is the event itself on the big screen for all to see, which is something the actress knows the importance and urgency of from her portrayals in films such as Ray. King knows the necessity of having our stories told and our history told and watched without revision or critique. The fact that one of this generation’s prime actresses dedicated her own time and work to the work of others speaks volumes about the importance of it and is worth the applause. 

King does a particularly great job of the directing aspect itself, enhancing the art of narrative. In casting Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir, and Aldis Hodge, King is clearly a master of her craft and the work of others. One Night In Miami is a brilliant piece to add on the resumé of King, which is long and brilliant. 

One Night In Miami is a brilliant film anyway, taking all of the events and commotion of 1964 and putting them in one night in a hotel room with Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown. Each of their real lives serve as inspiration for the film, and the film is an ode to their lives and work toward the social and civil issues of our time. It is an appropriate moment for it, and the movie will stand the test of our time and makes time stand still for a minute. 

How the story begins and ends is hard to pinpoint because the story keeps going and you don’t want it to end neither does one know where to begin with the breadth of information, but it’s easy to follow and you can keep watching One Night In Miami. It’s as if you are reliving history, much like history is to be told. One Night In Miami tells and relives a magical event that happened in a magical time and place. With the sounds of Sam Cooke serving as a soundtrack and giving voice to the entire movie, One Night In Miami is a sweet, soulful ode to the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and our current civil rights struggle. Cooke’s biggest hit, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” concludes the movie with Sam Cooke debuting the song live on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. The song that is a theme for social change is sung in a tearful rendition by Odom Jr., and that in itself shows where the story started, where it was going, and how it ends all along. The film is a test of power, patience, and love in its purest form amidst some of the biggest struggles against our human existence, and these figures showed us that in a rare and unforgettable fashion. King never lets us forget that figures like Malcolm X and Sam Cooke, who were both murdered within 2 months of each other, were central to the movement. Of course, the other figures, the late great Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown, continued their dominance in social and cultural conversations. One Night In Miami is about them and the world, and how one night of solving the world’s problems amidst their work and passions can make a world of change.


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