One Night in Miami shows the present isn’t so different from the past

From Denzel Washington to Ben Affleck, it seems like every actor has the itch to be behind the camera nowadays. Regina King now joins the ranks of “actor turned director” with One Night in Miami. Luckily for her, she picked the right story to tell for the right time.

One Night in Miami is the somewhat true story of the night when Jim Brown, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali (then still known as Cassius Clay), and Sam Cooke spent time together shortly after Ali was named the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. We find them all at different points in their lives. Ali is just getting started, Brown is about to retire from football, Cooke is at the peak of his career, and Malcolm X is about to leave the Nation of Islam, a decision which would later result in his death. In reality, this night was probably just one long party, but in this film, it was a meeting of four great minds who get together to discuss their place in the world as successful black men and the best way to use their positions to help their people.

Real photo of the famous night. Photo by Bob Gomel / The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

The film is adapted from a play written by Kemp Powers (who also co-wrote Pixar’s Soul), and his script is hands down the best part of the film. The struggles that he highlights using these four men are some of the same conversations we have surrounding black celebrity and activism today. While the men all have different opinions, a lot of the movie feels like Malcolm X vs. the superstars. Malcolm argues that the three stars should see themselves as weapons for the cause while they feel that their achievements alone help the cause. It also explores how black Americans struggle to agree on what exactly we’re fighting for. One could argue (as they do in the film) that Sam Cooke and Jim Brown’s artistic and economic freedom provides more inspiration and hope for the black community than Malcolm X could ever give through just rhetoric or religion. If we fight for the right to live as we are and who we are, who are we to tell another black person how they should manage their wealth and success. These are debates that we still have today. Last summer, we saw that with black celebrities and the black lives matter movement, where there were debates over whether black stars were doing enough. The artist Noname’s criticism of J. Cole and later Beyonce comes to mind as an example. Now, these debates play out in public, not in the privacy of hotel rooms. That 40 years later, we still have these same arguments is frustrating, but that’s why this film feels like it came at the right time.

Of course, the interesting themes and well-written dialogue would be moot without the actors' performances, all of whom bring their A-game. Eli Goree and Aldis Hodge do a great job as Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown, respectively, but for me, the real breakout stars were the actors Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke and Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X. Odom Jr. already has a bit of fame from starring as Burr in Hamilton but this is the first time I’ve seen him in a movie and he kills it. Ben-Adir is an actor I’ve never seen before or even heard of, but he is spectacular. In my opinion, he’s the best part of this film. His performance is Oscar-worthy, and hopefully, either this year or the next, it will be recognized as such.

Regina King proves a capable director, but there’s nothing particularly impressive here. Like most movies directed by actors, the focus is on the performances and less on doing anything creative with the cinematography, editing, sound, etc. Some audiences will find the movie dull. If you do watch it, you should go in with the expectation of it watching more like a filmed stage production than a typical movie. However, there are a couple of scenes like Ali’s boxing match and a scene at one of Sam Cooke’s concerts that proves that King has a talent for more than just directing four people talking to each other and I’m curious to see when and what she will direct next.

One Night in Miami is a movie that gives you exactly what it promises. It’s a riveting, dialogue-driven drama that explores multiple perspectives on what black power is. Again I’ll stress that it’s incredibly wordy. If the subject matter isn’t inherently interesting to you or if you like your movies to be flashy, you’re setting yourself up for boredom. But for those of us for whom the struggle for black empowerment continues to be a relevant topic, this is a must-watch that furthers the conversation.

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Jeffery Rahming

Jeffery Rahming

A place to talk about movies & film culture

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