Based on the stage play by Kemp Powers, One Night in Miami imagines an impromptu gathering in 1964 of four black icons at a crossroads in each of their lives. This includes Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) before his split with the Muslim Brotherhood, Sam Cooke (Leslie Odon Jr) contemplating a creative shift and NFL Fullback Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) beginning his transition to acting. Guest of honour though is the newly crowned Boxing World Champion Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) a recent Muslim convert, about to reinvent himself as Muhammed Ali.
The film is also the directorial debut of Academy Award Winner Regina King and without trying to sound too cynical it has all the hallmarks of an established talent going behind the camera. Perfectly competent, if unambitious direction, that settles into a comfortable level of quality but never exceeds it. The prologue feels like a good example of this. Compelling sections in their own right as we see each of the four men and their individual struggles separately but without any sense of cohesion. It is only when gathered together in their hotel room to celebrate Clay’s victory that the film rises to its true potential.
Contrived or not the presence of four black icons provides the perfect setup for the heated discourse on racial identity that follows. Malcolm X’s militant view of the white man as a figure of evil contrasting most potently with Cooke’s determination to prosper within the white system. These are not soapbox speeches or televised debates but real, organic conversations that the two men would likely have if forced together. The conflict of desires towards activism, towards survival, towards just existing as a whole human being fills the room to bursting point. Poured out by the magnetic performances of the four principle actors.
It’s noticeable though that all the drama that Ben-Adir and Odon Jr bring to the table leaves precious little for Goree and Hodge to do. Despite Clay’s newfound commitment to the movement he has nothing to add to the proceedings beyond his own aggrandisement. Like Brown he much better personifies the ordinary black man’s point of view, concerned with more base needs like food and women. Both men are all too aware of their stature as figures of male black excellence and simply want to revel in it. In this though they offer the vital function of lightening the mood, a pressure valve to release the tension generated by the other players.
Perhaps the valve is released one too many times though as One Night in Miami never seems to reach a peak to its drama. No climax to speak of when even stage plays, limited to a single location understand the need to build to something. Instead the film simply plateaus early and remains at its high point of quality throughout.
In many ways One Night in Miami feels like a party attended by armchair pundits. The chemistry and energy and fun of being together with a group of charismatic people weighted with long discussions of real and potent issues. Yet when it is over and the hangover starts to creep in there’s an unfortunate sense that little has been accomplished.