God is great.
The power behind Regina King‘s directorial debut (adapted by Kemp Powers from his own play) One Night in Miami … is epitomized by an exchange between Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) a little more than halfway through. It’s the night their friend Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) became the surprise heavyweight-boxing champion of the world and the two are alone in the former’s hotel room while the Champ chases down the fourth member of their quartet, Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), after he stormed out frustration. The conversation moves from colorism to the motivations for their actions straight into the notion of duty within the civil rights movement. Malcolm sees his friends as leaders armed with the voices and platforms to shift the tide.
So when Jim rejects labeling their talents as weapons, Malcolm can’t help but implore him to rethink his stance. He’s looking the Cleveland Browns star fullback in the eyes with a plea of desperation for a belief we know with hindsight to be incredibly prescient. Cassius is still having second thoughts about joining the Nation of Islam. Jim isn’t yet ready to carve his own path forward without holding onto his reliance upon the white ownership of the NFL. And Sam’s lyrics are about as hollow as a Valentine’s Day card—sentiments Malcolm exclaimed in order to spark that aforementioned retreat. They’re each somewhat newly rich and newly poised to become influential. They think in terms of economic freedom while Malcolm knows they can reach much, much further.
That he was right can only embolden storytellers like Powers and King to hypothesize the breadth of conversations and arguments these four icons may have shared behind the closed door of a Miami hotel room on February 25, 1964. With Nation of Islam guards (Lance Reddick‘s Brother Kareem and Christian Magby‘s Brother Jamaal) standing watch and reporters not yet aware of their location (much to Sam’s chagrin since he’d rather be celebrating Clay’s victory in public), this ice cream social becomes an incendiary affair rife with tough love and hard truths. They cross the line many times over yet never waver in their brotherhood. Malcolm treating the evening like a targeted sermon might get under their skin, but a part of them realize his points are well made.
We know they do because we’ve seen them experience how fame and notoriety means nothing in a white world that can’t help denigrating their place within it. The first three sections of the film’s prologue are as humorously biting as they are punishing with their left hook of a curtain pull. One is literally that as Clay dances around the ring during a fight he’s already won only to be knocked to the mat by a lucky punch. The next is a display of gatekeeping as sabotage with Cooke watching his dream of playing the Copacabana crash and burn in real-time. And the last delivers the knowing smirk we anticipated the moment Beau Bridges arrives on-screen to shake Brown’s hand and yet it lands with a wallop nonetheless.
Do you placate in order to avoid similar outcomes later? Or do you embrace the rage and respond in kind? These are three men who were never shy about speaking out, but it’s one thing to do so with nothing to lose and another with everything. That’s the line that separates them from Malcolm. He’s battling his own crossroads (contemplating leaving the Nation of Islam to begin his own branch), but he’s also not reliant on or selling to white America. Malcolm can say and do whatever he wants because his words will embolden his people to action even if he must become a martyr in the process. Cassius, Jim, and Sam have to measure their words more carefully. They have to weigh the impact on their brand.
What Malcolm posits in One Night in Miami …‘s hypothetical rendering of a real encounter is that they no longer have to worry. They’ve reached a pinnacle wherein their talent can be used for social change without risking a loss of financial independence. Brown can call out his team’s strong-arm tactics as a thinly veiled extension of “ownership” rights because he doesn’t need their permission to be successful. Clay can embrace Islam without wondering if doing so will be detrimental to his career. And Cooke can leverage his clout in the music industry to pivot away from love songs and write about a cause. They’ve earned their seat as kings within their community and the only people stopping them from rightfully wearing their crowns right now is themselves.
Whether or not Malcolm poking their temperamental bears with a stick got them over that hump is unknown, but it makes sense. We watch as his incitements push Clay, Cooke, and Brown out of their comfort zone to get at the heart of what’s happening beyond their arms’ reach. No one is saying they aren’t aware of the tumult, but maybe they haven’t yet seen themselves on the frontlines calling the shots. To witness that self-actualization occur on-screen is nothing short of inspirational on an emotional and philosophical level because this isn’t radicalization or indoctrination or shaming. Malcolm is merely laying out facts so the others can look within themselves and acknowledge their purpose and privilege insofar as advancing a cause they cannot afford to sit out anymore.
And these four actors provide their roles with a bold presence both in their ability to impersonate physically and embody spiritually. Their elation, rage, and guilt are ever-present when the moment calls and King conducts them with expert precision inside an impeccably written script by leaning into its theatricality—eschewing big budget camera movements for meticulous blocking and a captivating use of composition. She lets her cast carry the drama with their performances by providing the room to scream when necessary and cry when there’s nothing left to give. They collectively breathe life into a moment that very well could have helped shape where the civil rights movement went next. How can you imagine these legends together for an entire evening and not believe it to be true?
courtesy of TIFF