It was one night, one room, and one pivotal moment of self-reflection in 1960s America. As the civil rights movement inches its way towards its peak in history, four Black icons are at cultural crossroads in a war of words on political action, fame, and the duties of Black celebrities to their communities during a time of crisis.
The premise is enough to make One Night in Miami a worthy contender for Best Picture and Best Director at the 2021 Academy Awards. Unfortunately, the film was shut out from both categories once the nominations were announced on March 15.
Even so, it managed to garnish a nod for Best Original Song, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor through the performance of a “Hamilton” alumn.
Based on Kemp Power’s stage play, One Night in Miami marks a powerful and fitting film for Regina King (“Watchmen,” “If Beale Street Could Talk”) to establish her first outing as a director.
The film follows the fictionalized account of Cassius Clay’s (pre-Muhammad Ali, played by Eli Goree) encounter with mentor Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), the “King of Soul” music Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and American football star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) in a hotel room after his legendary win against heavyweight champion Sonny Liston on the evening of February 25, 1964.
There’s not much clarity on what happened at the ordinary Hampton House room in Miami, Florida. However, Powers, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, created a historically realistic cognition of “what-if” based on differences and an understanding.
One where the friends in real life talk about the themes of cultural assimilation vs. revolution, the responsibilities of Black Americans have to their communities and the debate over Clay’s decision to become a Muslim.
The film follows a conflict of beliefs between its four leads. Throughout the film, Malcolm X and Cook are constantly at odds with one another as they challenge each other’s part in the cry for Black justice. One believes that the Civil rights movement is the only way to invoke change, while the other believes that the pathway of social liberation is through personal success.
Clay and Brown see both perspectives. However, Clay is hoping to gain a better understanding through Islam as Brown takes the role of mediator with hopes that both men perceive each other’s side in the matter.
As the world is watching their every move, the four men are at a crucial point in their lives as they try to figure out the next chapter of their journey. In a night meant to celebrate Clay’s accomplishments, the events that occurred, or at least assumed history, helped shaped the futures of their lives.
In the events that followed after that historical encounter, Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali and converted to Islam, becoming one of the most influential activists of social injustice. Brown retired from football in 1966 to focus on his acting career due to a dispute with the owner of the Cleveland Browns. Malcolm X was assassinated one year after the fight and split from the Nation of Islam, while Cooke was shot and killed around the same time.
Despite the film having some minor action scenes of Clay duking it out in the ring and little musical numbers of the soulful Cooke, One Night of Miami follows a mostly talkative narrative in and around the hotel room of that fateful encounter.
On paper, it doesn’t seem to be the best way to narrate the film. One Night in Miami executes the move in a way where it doesn’t feel tedious to the viewer.
Although all four men did an exceptional job portraying these historic icons, it’s the performance of Goree that helps moves the story along. Goree’s portrayal of wildly confident and young Clay provides a sense of optimism and naivete within the four. Although Goree doesn’t dive deeper when compared to the rest as the film gets serious, it works as he was just a kid who made history.
Without having a physical villain, Odom Jr. becomes the antagonist in the narrative under the role of Cooke. He challenges Malcolm’s notion of community responsibility with his calls of individualistic responsibility and success to push racial equality Odom Jr.’s take on a complicated man whos conflicted and pressured in the industry to float towards assimilation proves that he earned his spot in the running for this awards season.
Ben-Adir’s embodiment of the dignity and advocacy of Malcolm X automatically makes him the star of the film. From the tender scenes he has with his family to the critical moments between himself and Odom Jr., it is a shame that Ben-Adir didn’t score a nomination for the Academy Awards.
Like Judas and the Black Messiah, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and The Trial of the Chicago 7, the film eerily connects to the issues that society is facing today. As Black wealth is a thing that can be achievable, it’s not enough to address the times of social injustice and political unrest that we faced in recent months. As what “One Night in Miami” has taught us is that the fight for social change is an effort that the entire community needs to be a part of.
Editor’s Note: (L-R) Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir, and Aldis Hodge star in ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.