“One Night in Miami,” January 25,2021, Netflix. Imagine Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown hanging out and talking about work, life, politics, race, identity and meaning and you’re a fly on the wall. Director Regina King has given us a likely scenario via Kemp Powers’ screenplay modification of his theatrical work of the same title and with enough backstory for those unfamiliar with the events of the day. It’s 1963-64 and Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) soon to be Muhammad Ali, is fighting his way to a championship bout with Sonny Liston. His mentor and friend, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) has been advising him towards conversion to Islam even as his conflict with Nation of Islam head Elijah Muhammad is coming to a head and his life is itself at risk. His friend, Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), the greatest running back in football history [I still believe this to be true in 2021], is about to make his own break with sports and move to acting but is facing huge pushback. Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.) is a genius producing his own and others r&b hits for the now global market after starting his own label. Each knows the sting of white supremacy in their work and their lives. Each knows the imperative of change. How to make that change? What must each of us do? What do we owe one another? The community? Ourselves? How do we remain true to what we are and do these other things? Small questions of course, set in the get-together following Ali’s victory over Sonny Liston to win the championship in Miami in 1964.
As with most of these play-to-film pieces, the theatrical residue persists. But the acting is first rate and each lead is stellar in their own right. Hodge’s Brown has a remarkable presence about him, a palpable strength and intelligence, Goree’s Clay/Ali is young and evolving, Ben-Adir’s Malcom is appropriately anxious about his security—including his NoI bodyguards and obsessed with threats and conflicts about to explode. And Odom’s Cooke is a showman trying to balance success in one world with “the change that’s gonna come.” It’s a wonderful exercise in considering that moment in history. Each carries their own special burdens into this party.
It’s also a film that doesn’t shy away from internal conflicts in the Black movements of the day, including the question of Black economic power, and the NoI’s dictatorial and even cult-like structure A film well worth watching.