Miami. February 25th, 1964.
22-year-old Cassius Clay defeats Sonny Liston in the Boxing World Heavyweight Championship and is crowned champion. That night, he retires to the Hampton House to celebrate with a few friends – NFL player Jim Brown, soul singer Sam Cooke, and civil-rights activist Malcolm X.
Four men, each a legend in their respective field; all young, black, and unapologetic, at a time when Jim Crow was still the law of the land.
As historical occurrences go, it’s an unlikely one – true thought it may be – but as dramatic premises its certainly powerful. Based on the stage-play by Kemp Powers, One Night in Miami is a self-contained character showcase; an imaging of conversations that might have been. This would seem to make it an instinctive fit for the directorial debut of Regina King, three-time Emmy and Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner.
Each of the men are dealing with their power and how best to exercise it. Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), soon to become Muhammad Ali, is characteristically ebullient, understandably braggadocious; full of victory, or perhaps just himself. Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), himself preparing to leave the Nation of Islam, proselytises on the responsibility they each have to the black community; especially Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.).
The film triangulates the four men with Malcolm X at their centre; pushing, pull, deflecting the different viewpoints. Each are informed by strategic flashbacks; such as Jim Brown’s (Aldis Hodge) encounter with friendly neighbour Mr. Carlton (Beau Bridges), whose unguarded, matter-of-fact bigotry shows up the cause of white southern liberalism.
No viewpoint is left undeveloped, no character underserved. Four larger-than-life personalities largely confined to one hotel room could easily eat up the oxygen, but King’s beautifully simple direction, never stagey or ostentatious, allows each scene to breathe. Terence Blanchard’s jazzy score keeps things cool, even when emotions heat up; perfectly counterpointed by Tami Reiker’s burnished cinematography.
Music has provided some of the most memorable moments in this year’s London Film Festival and One Night in Miami is no exception. Neither Malcolm X or Sam Cooke would live another year and the film provides a literal swan-song for them, a presagement of the future they hoped to bring about. Smart and robust, the film is a fitting tribute.