Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and NFL star Jim Brown ring in the changes in a Florida motel room in Regina King’s spirited film
One Night in Miami is a fluent, high-minded, if sometimes slightly inert movie, with an invigorating interest in ideas and debate – and it begins with a brutally effective sucker-punch of racism from the Jim Crow/antebellum world. Regina King directs with flair, working from the script that Kemp Powers (co-director of Pixar’s Soul) has adapted from his own stage play. This is a Stoppardian high-concept display, imagining the conversation of four legendary African Americans who really did come together in Miami in 1964 after the boxing victory of Cassius Clay (as he then was) over Sonny Liston. The world is about to change, and they are ringside.
Eli Goree plays Clay, euphoric and slightly terrified by his own emerging greatness; Kingsley Ben-Adir is Malcolm X, keen to nail down Clay’s private promises to convert to Islam; Aldis Hodge is Jim Brown, the NFL megastar thinking of going into the movies; and Leslie Odom Jr is soul singer Sam Cooke, under fire for going along with the white music establishment. The movie puts them all in the same motel room – Malcolm X’s – and this is to be, to quote the Hamilton musical, the room where it happens; or at any rate, where what’s going to happen gets talked about. (Without comment, King lets us absorb the faint echo of the Lorraine motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968.) Meanwhile, wives and children get distractedly phoned up, but women themselves are absent from the action and debate.