One Night in Miami… imagines four legendary Black lives intersecting in 1964

Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Cassius Clay meet in a hotel room and rethink their roles in the Civil Rights movement in Regina King’s fluid, watchable adaptation of Kemp Powers’s play.

At the bar: Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X, Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown, Eli Goree as Cassius Clay and Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami… (2020)

▶︎ One Night in Miami is released in UK cinemas from 26 December 2020 and on Amazon Prime from 15 January 2021.

Once strong, the connections between American theatre and film have slackened in recent decades – especially when it comes to adapting major plays to the screen. However mixed the end results, works by Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman, Eugene O’Neill and Neil Simon were once staples of cinematic adaptation, the film versions of their plays often constituting the primary experience of theatre for many cinemagoers.

Commercial factors doubtless account for the move away from cinematic adaptations of plays in the 1990s and 2000s. Now, though – perhaps inspired by the success of the NT Live and Digital Theatre initiatives – US filmmakers appear to be turning to the stage once again – especially as a source for films focusing on African-American characters. Moonlight (2016), of course, was derived from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished play, while Denzel Washington’s Fences (2016) and George C. Wolfe’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom belatedly bring August Wilson’s work to the screen.

Regina King’s One Night in Miami… continues the trend, with the actress adapting Kemp Powers’s 2013 play into her first feature as director. The play premiered in Los Angeles, prior to productions in Baltimore and London, and its juicy premise has built-in audience appeal. The piece focuses on a February night in 1964 when Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Cassius Clay (on the cusp of his renaming as Muhammad Ali) meet in a Miami motel for an after-party following Clay’s triumphant win over Sonny Liston to become world heavyweight boxing champion.

Powers has called the encounter the equivalent of “a Black Justice League” – though the bringing-together-of-legends conceit also evokes specific theatrical antecedents such as Tom Stoppard’s Travesties (1974) and Terry Johnson’s Insignificance (1982). While there’s a historical basis for the four men’s meeting, Powers imagines the details of what occurred, making this a watershed moment for each of the protagonists in their engagement with Civil Rights struggle and American society at large, in order to create an intimate investigation into various kinds of Black power.

One Night in Miami… (2020)

Expanding the real-time structure of the play, and adding two female roles (Joaquina Kalukango and Nicolette Robinson appear briefly as Betty X – better known as Betty Shabazz – and Barbara Cooke), King and Powers, who wrote the adaptation himself, supply a basic opening out of the drama from its motel-room setting, and their approach seems shaky at first. Accompanied by Terence Blanchard’s insistently jaunty jazz score, the film begins with four vignettes introducing the characters individually: Clay (Eli Goree) in the ring; Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr) crooning before a white crowd; Malcolm (Kingsley Ben-Adir) discussing his disillusionment with the Nation of Islam; and Jim (Aldis Hodge) encountering a deceptively genial Southerner (Beau Bridges).

While these added establishing scenes make for an obvious, clunky set-up, the film gains in assurance once the men meet and their different attitudes and aspirations are sketched out. The cinematographer Tami Reiker occasionally resorts to generic gloss but lights the motel room warmly and lovingly as a space for the friends’ interactions.

Two main conflicts are highlighted. The first relates to Malcolm’s concerns about the Nation of Islam, which he has encouraged Clay to join but now wishes to leave himself due to disputes with the organisation’s leader Elijah Muhammad. The second is his brutal takedown of Cooke for ‘pandering’ to white audiences by avoiding political songwriting – a critique that culminates with him playing Blowin’ in the Wind and questioning why a song by “a white boy from Minnesota” speaks of social struggle more potently than Cooke’s romantic output.

Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami…

The debates occasionally feel contrived, but King keeps the film fluid and, at times, funny (vanilla ice cream is Malcolm’s only concession to a party mood). She is aided by four marvellously complementary performances that transcend impersonation. A bouncing Eli Goree conveys Clay’s energy and self-belief, while Leslie Odom Jr (the original Aaron Burr in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton) brings passion to Cooke’s eloquent response to Malcolm’s accusations, and sings sweetly and powerfully throughout. Aldis Hodge as Brown – who’s about to trade football stardom for film – makes his presence felt, in a less showy and developed role, with shrewd, wry underplaying. And fresh from playing Obama in The Comey Rule, Kingsley Ben-Adir, with his beautiful, authoritative voice, is exceptional in suggesting subterranean shadings of foreboding in Malcolm’s militancy.

The film serves in part as a (historically dubious) origin story for Cooke’s civil rights anthem A Change is Gonna Come, and it is Malcolm’s vision for Cooke’s artistry that the film ultimately endorses. Still, at its best One Night in Miami… is even-handed and insightful in its exploration of the challenges, opportunities and complexities involved in being a Black public figure at a pivotal historical juncture.

Further reading