On the night of 25 February 1964, the greatest boxer ever walked the earth, Cassius Clay (Eli Goree, Race) won the world heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston. In the aftermath of his career-turning moment, Clay celebrates the victory with three friends—all are prominent Black figures in the 1960s, musician Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr., Hamilton), NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge, Straight Outta Compton), and the controversial Black activist as well as Clay’s mentor, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir, High Fidelity series). Four legends in One Night in Miami marks the directorial debut of Regina King, adapting a stage-play by Kemp Powers (Pixar’s Soul) who also writes the screenplay. The celebration isn’t merely a celebratory party or anything that resembles it; instead, the four legends embark in a conversational forum, exchanging thoughts and principles about how the world works and how Black communities struggle inside it.
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One Night in Miami is barely a story; it’s more like a transformative, subtext-heavy discourse about being an influential Black person during the civil rights era in the US. Powers utilizes this fictional account to talk over a series of issues amongst the Black community the way The Two Popes reflects over Catholic Church’s direction using two popes in the process. He might have imagined most syntax of the dialogues, but the depicted event has a factual root and the conversation has a real-world inspiration. It’s a reflective retreat in a cramped hotel room where Malcolm X stays and leads the discussion. It’s important to acknowledge that by this point in time, X isn’t as radicalized as he was a few years prior especially during his militant National of Islam time. X is the gas that fuels the discussion and the wind that fan the argument when it starts to cool down. It’s not always about his provocation, but, his critical thought helps navigate the discourse.
Everyone has their own problem and, at the same time, agenda. Clay’s been enthusiastic about his conversion to Islam and the renunciation of his slave name to use the name he’s now known for, Muhammad Ali; but, he hasn’t had the courage to make the decisions public yet. X, becoming disillusioned with his previous organization, is preparing a newer and more holistic movement, but he’s somehow become more reclusive upon learning that he’s been under surveillance. Brown grows tired of being the prized Black man in the White world; therefore, he’s trying to rekindle his spirit in acting gigs. Cooke, on the other hand, has become a successful Black artist—writing and producing soul hits while also giving back to the community; but, he knows that he can do more than that. They all have something they’re proud of, something they’re dreaming of, and something they’re afraid of; but, most importantly, they have friends to share their vision and their fear in one fateful night.
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Powers‘ screenplay highlights the dialectic approach to unravel the heated arguments without leaning towards one party. The driving force is inarguably Malcolm X’s revolutionary vision; but, he’s not always the commanding force. It’s not always explicitly stated but he leans on forcing his other friends to get more “violent” and radicalized into their own struggle as the faces of the Black community. But, it’s a two-way dialogue and there’s a moment where X is reminded of how he’s done more harm than good to society, especially to himself. King‘s vision transports the intensity of the play into a 100% cinematic experience. She trusts the actors to carry the emotion into the witty conversation as Tami Reiker‘s camera tracks them closely. The director translates the sophisticated blocking into an exercise of manipulating the depth of space. The actors’ movement is well-choreographed within the confining space in accordance with the fluctuating tension. It’s such an exuberant showcase in a King‘s first directorial effort.
The four actors deliver uniformly genuine and compelling performances to compensate for how little the story moves within its cramped duration. Goree translates Ali’s optimism into a happy-go-lucky cockiness without having to disrespect the legend’s legacy. Odom Jr. and Hodges excellently transcend their roles into a balancing force that sometimes erupt, but also provide answers when prompted. Ben-Adir delivers what might be his career-defining performance as he distances his portrayal of Malcolm X from Denzel Washington‘s charismatic performance in Malcolm X (1992). With excellent performances from the leads and King’s austere attention to space, One Night in Miami… never feels less of a film—posing a thought-provoking and riveting discourse about timely Black struggle.