“One Night in Miami” is one of those dramas with a hooky, irresistible meeting-of-the-minds premise that places four legends in a single room, all so that we can sit back and watch the verbal-philosophical fireworks fly. The movie takes place on Feb. 25, 1964, the night that Cassius Clay, at 22, won the world heavyweight championship by defeating Sonny Liston in a title bout at the Miami Beach Convention Center. To celebrate his victory, he heads over to the modest, rather shabby small suite where his friend Malcolm X is staying at the Hampton House, a motel that caters to Black celebrities. There, the two are joined by the football superstar Jim Brown and the soul legend Sam Cooke.
That sounds like a quintessential what if?, but the four were in fact friends, and this get-together really did take place; it’s just that very little is known about it. “One Night in Miami” is adapted from Kemp Powers’ 2013 speculative stage play, and the actress Regina King, making her debut as a feature-film director, has opened up the action in the best possible way, mixing in scenes set outside the motel room, like the Liston fight and several encounters that show us the characters on their own, confronting what racism looked like in 1964. (Brown’s meeting with a seemingly friendly white Southerner, played by Beau Bridges, ends on a note that’s like a slap.) We also confront the anxiousness of Malcolm at home in Chicago with Betty Shabazz (Joaquina Kalukango). King turns “One Night in Miami” into a real movie, staging it with a flowing visual confidence and vibrant emotional flair that gives it a fly-on-the-wall authenticity. The fact that these four are unwinding in a motel room, matching wits and ideas and teasing out their underlying rivalries, never feels like a conceit.
That’s important, because the appeal of a movie like this one isn’t just that we’re seeing different fabled worldviews pinging off each other. It’s that the characters, loosened up by a few drinks and the pleasure of their camaraderie, reveal who they are — not just what they think and feel, but how they think and feel it — in a way that even a lot of good biopics never quite find the room for. I love Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” but in all three hours of it we don’t see much of the casual, sitting-around-and-shooting-the-breeze Malcolm. Even if you’re as monumental a man as he was, that’s still a lot of what life is.
In “One Night in Miami,” the four eat ice cream (vanilla, which they joke about) and tease each other with insults that are just this side of respectful, and the four actors — Eli Goree (Cassius Clay), Kinglsey Ben-Adir (Malcolm X), Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown), and Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam Cooke) — are sensational. All four burrow their way into the psyche of these legends, into their manners and contradictions and vulnerabilities. Goree nails but shrewdly understates the music of Clay’s voice, the insistence that could rise to a lordly bellow, Hodge invests Brown with a seen-it-all wary force, and Leslie Odom Jr., from “Hamilton,” makes Cooke a supreme paradox: smooth as silk on the surface, roiling underneath. The men we see before us are suffused with their destinies and, at the same time, they’re funny, earthy, relatable people who wear their egos on their sleeves.
Where the film comes together, and holds you as a structured piece of drama, is in the theme that surges throughout it but is given a name only at the end: “Black power.” In 1964, that phrase was just coming into its own, and “One Night in Miami” is set at the paradigm shift of a moment when Black power was a consciousness that emerged, in part, from how figures like these four were rising in the culture, becoming influential stars in it, challenging it and changing it and maybe, in the process, revolutionizing it. Revolution was in the air, yet only Malcolm X had named it that. “One Night in Miami” is a casually entrancing debate about power on the part of those who have won it but are still figuring out what to do with it.
They’re united in their dream of the future, and their love for each other is apparent, yet they’re also a bundle of colliding contradictions. Clay is about to announce to the world that he’s become a Muslim and is joining the Nation of Islam — an extraordinary, game-changing move that will not endear him to a white press corps that already questions his brash, look-at-me style (which, in the movie, he says was inspired by professional wrestling, in particular by Gorgeous George). Yet Malcolm, instrumental in facilitating Clay’s conversion, is about to part ways with the Nation himself, a move that is leaving him coldcocked with dread, since it’s kind of like leaving the Mafia. (His bodyguard, the bow-tied Kareem, stands outside the door like a prison guard.) Malcolm’s disenchantment with the Nation of Islam is rooted in his discovery that its leader, Elijah Muhammad, is a lech and a fraud. In abandoning the Nation, he’s being true to himself but, in effect, he’s hanging the future Muhammad Ali out to dry.
Kingsley Ben-Adir invests Malcolm with a jovial sharpness that’s engaging on the surface, yet his intellectual fury is always there, along with a kind of puritan sternness. He’s older than the others, and at one point gets teased for his “tight-ass 1940s slang.” But he sees, more than anyone, the full X-ray of the white power structure, and it leads him to question why Sam Cooke, a soul genius with a sublime romantic croon, is working so hard to please white audiences and isn’t doing more to help the movement.
Their debate is charged and fascinating, because Cooke, who Malcolm is essentially accusing of being an Uncle Tom, defends himself ably, pointing out that he started a record label that has given careers to many Black artists. He points out that when he licensed Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” to the Rolling Stones, Womack was enraged until he started seeing the royalty checks. Cooke, who drives an orange-pink Corvette Stingray, makes a compelling case for a Black man’s corporate power, for working the system from within. And Jim Brown, supremely cognizant and political, talks about taking a role in a Hollywood Western (“Rio Conchos”) the same way. Brown doesn’t even consider himself a hero. “We’re just gladiators, man,” he tells Clay.
But then Malcolm hits Cooke — hits all of them — with the transcendent insurgency of his view, which is that African-Americans are dying every day. The struggle has always been there, but now the fight has arrived; there’s no avoiding it. He plays a Bob Dylan song, “Blowin’ in the Wind” (and, in his slightly geeky Malcolm way, rocks out to it), and asks: How it is that this white boy from Minnesota is writing protest music of greater relevance than Sam Cooke? Malcolm the firebrand is didactic about it, but the movie isn’t. It lets that question, and various possible answers to it, linger in the air.
“One Night in Miami” feeds off a moment of transition, and does so movingly. The characters, as presented, are certainly informed by our hindsight view of them — and shadowed by the fact that Malcolm, exactly one year later, would be assassinated (in all likelihood, by forces within the Nation of Islam), and that Sam Cooke would be shot and killed in a motel altercation before the end of 1964. Yet the movie has the shrewdness to live in the present tense. It ends with a scene built around a telling, aching rendition of Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” a song that the film suggests grew out of this night in Miami (a historical stretch, but that’s okay). The point is that the song remains as hauntingly relevant to our current moment as it was to the ’60s. Change comes, but it doesn’t just happen — it’s lightning in a bottle, and “One Night in Miami” captures the flash of what it looks like.