‘One Night in Miami’ is a powerful look at race, representation and responsibility in modern America

There’s a pressure that comes with telling the tale of a famous figure, so when you expand that story to four of the most important men in American history, that pressure only increases tenfold. Fortunately, the person handling this pressure is the ever-amazing Regina King, the award-winning actress who here makes her directorial debut with One Night in Miami, the fictional tale of four very important figures, Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Cassius Clay, the night after Clay’s history-making win against Sonny Liston, which would change the lives of all four men.

With powerful, confident performances, and a cool, intimate ambiance, One Night in Miami gives its creators space to explore some of the most important problems in contemporary America, without coming off as preachy or inflammatory, while at the same time exploring the emotional landscape of these characters, showing us the small, meaningful moments that make these larger-than-life figures seem more human. In the process we come away seeing that even those most important figures in history have their own problems, frailties, and insecurities.

If there’s any justice in the world, Kingsley Ben-Adir will come out of this film as a star to watch, as his portrayal of Malcolm X stands as one of the best. The familiar fire is there, but it’s backed by a sensitive, even awkward energy, with Ben-Adir reaching down into the heart of the character, which pays dividends. So many times our adoration of figures like Malcolm X, and indeed quite a few figures in this film, can make us forget these were regular men, just like you or me, so it’s nice to see this film, and these performers, pull back that curtain, giving us a warts-and-all prismatic view of these men. Few actors encompass this better than Ben-Adir, creating a well-rounded portrayal of the leader, complete with his passion, his faith, and the ever-looming doubts and fear that at any moment, it could all be torn away.

After Hamilton, all eyes seemed to fall upon Leslie Odom Jr., whose performance as Burr was one for the history books, and whose presence was undeniable, but it left to wonder if that charisma could translate to other venues. One Night in Miami should silence any doubts, as his performance as Sam Cooke utilizes not only his powerful voice, but also the fine warmth and emotional intelligence that made Burr such a delight to watch. From the moment he appears on screen, he demands our attention, and it’s indeed difficult to look away. He’s not all swagger and fire, however, as Odom Jr. shows his range as a performer here, allowing the softer moments to leak through, even beneath the veneer of pride he wears for most of the film. Indeed, in many ways he could be seen as the protagonist of the piece, as the Cooke we meet at the end of the film seems much-changed from the one that greets the audience, and it’s one of the film’s greatest pleasures to watch this transformation take place before our eyes.

Where One Night in Miami truly shines is in the way the four men’s ideologies play against each other, creating some astonishing discourse. Though the four have so much in common, each come at their fame in a different way, creating some real moments for dramatic tension, which at times reaches explosive levels. Especially impressive are the moments between Cooke and Malcolm X, as both are forced to come to terms with how they view the responsibilities of their stations, creating amazing moments of mounting tension that make for some incendiary exchanges. Just as powerful as these brawls, however, are the film’s more quiet moments, as when Cooke and Clay (played with a fun, easy, and always entertaining touch by Eli Goree) are simply sitting in a car discussing their lives, where we glean so much about each of the men and their place in the world in a such a simple and effective way.

There are few debuts in recent memory that has reached the quality of One Night in Miami, but then we could expect little less from a figure as talented as Regina King. Though some may find the lack of locations limiting, here it allows an intimacy with its subjects that works in the film’s favor, especially as the performances universally are of such high quality. One can only hope that this acts as a springboard for everyone involved, and that we see so much more from all of these actors, and I for one can’t wait to see what else King has in her bag of tricks going forward, because we all know it’s going to be something amazing.

One Night in Miami is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

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