‘One Night in Miami’ and the Debate Between Idealism and Realism

Last December, multiple award-winning actress Regina King made her directorial debut with One Night in Miami, a speculative historical film based on Kemp Powers’ 2013 play of the same name. One Night focuses on the real-life encounter that Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown all had on February 25, 1964, fictionalizing the multiple conversations the four men had throughout the night.

This is not an origin story, but a snapshot of each bigger-than-life historical figure at the height of their fame: Cassius Clay (Ali), the world’s new heavyweight champion; Sam Cooke, the popular Hot 100 crooner; Jim Brown, the record-breaking football player; and Malcolm X, the free-spoken minister in the process of penning an autobiography that will be published less than a year after his assassination. We already know who these men are; the film’s aim is to show us how they interact and contend with one another.

The four all meet in a Miami hotel room to celebrate Clay’s underdog defeat against fellow professional boxer Sonny Liston. The night, meant to be carefree and festive, quickly escalates into a clash of ideals between Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). X accuses Cooke, a popstar made rich through cheesy chart-toppers, of being a sell-out, an entertainment gladiator-of-sorts pandering to white people and forgetting his community in the process. Cooke rebuts, saying his economic freedom should be the definition of Black success and empowerment; and that through his countless royalties, he is beating the anti-Black system at its own game. The argument between X’s urgent Nation of Islam extremism and Cooke’s “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” realism is by no means new, but it still finds relevance in our racially-charged present.

The central dialogue between X and Cooke has no basis in reality but is apparently based on scriptwriter Kemp Powers’ experience and subsequent internal struggle writing for the series Star Trek: Discovery

The number one pitfall of biographical films is often its predilection to employ ultra-recognizable traits to reinforce to the audience that yes, that is indeed Muhammad Ali. However, King treats these icons with grace and nuance, avoiding any predictable, stereotypical moments—no need for a single utterance of “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” The eerie depictions of the controversial Nation of Islam easily tempt one to go down an hours-long Wikipedia rabbit hole, and the nonchalant musical references (The Beatles, Bob Dylan—tired or not, it’s your decision) can be quite fun.

The film is incredibly dialogue-driven, which sometimes leads to strange pacing and exposes its stage play origins rather brutally. Fortunately, this doesn’t result in the unbearably tedious or dull viewing experience that most play-based films have the propensity for (cough, Fences). Instead, Powers’ busy script gives each actor a real chance to shine. Odom, Jr. is just perfectly cast as Cooke; he oozes pure talent in every scene, singing or not, and is sure to be robbed if snubbed at the Oscars this year. Ben-Adir, a British actor who has more experience on stage than on screen, comes off as promising cinematic new blood. The heated debate between their characters relinquishes no answers yet relegates Jim Brown and Cassius Clay to the sidelines, but fine performances from a gravitas-laden Aldis Hodge and a hyped-up Eli Goree make the two’s performances impactful nonetheless. King’s experience as an actress has no doubt paid off.

The fictionalized debate between X and Cooke isn’t unique enough to stay in my mind for weeks on end, but it’s interesting to note that King’s first film as a director may have found the happy medium between these exact ideals. Moreover, it’s always refreshing to see Black stories explored by Black people. One Night in Miami feels more like a preview of the up-and-coming talents of both its director and cast, and leaves you hungry for their next big project.

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