I fully expected One Night in Miami to end with a real-life picture of the film’s historical subjects. The film recounts—with fictional flourish—the night of February 25, 1964, when Muhammad Ali (then still Cassius Clay) defeated Sonny Liston to become the world heavyweight champion. He celebrated his win with Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke. One of Miami’s subplots (or, at least, frequently referenced details) is Malcolm X being a camera geek. But director King never goes to the “real,” instead letting her cast carry the film to its devastating finish.
Kingsley Ben-Adir plays Malcolm X, Eli Goree plays Cassius Clay, Aldis Hodge plays Jim Brown, and Leslie Odom Jr. plays Sam Cooke. There’s a small supporting cast, basically Joaquina Kalukango as Betty X, and then Lance Reddick and Christian Magby as Ben-Adair’s Nation of Islam bodyguards; they’re kind of buzzkills for the evening.
The film’s based on screenwriter Kemp Powers’s stage play, though the film never feels stagy. King keeps it very open until the four men get into the room together, starting with prologues for each. The film opens with Goree winning a bout in England, which allows for Michael Imperioli and Lawrence Gilliard Jr. cameos in his corner. Goree’s Miami’s most singularly dynamic performance. It’s not his movie overall, but he’s always in the spotlight. He’s the champ, after all.
Odom’s prologue involves him modifying his show to play for the shitty white people at the Copacabana. Odom gets to do three “live” performances in the film, though he’s constantly teasing a jam session. His role is the film’s toughest.
Hodge’s prologue has him visiting a white family in his hometown, thinking things have changed since he’s now the star of the NFL. Not so much. Unlike Goree or Odom’s prologues, the film doesn’t give Hodge the opportunity for honest reaction, which sets him up for the film’s most important part. Hodge works his ass off in the part, and it seems like overkill at the beginning, but then it becomes clearer why he’s doing it as the film progresses.
Those prologues are all set at some time before the One Night, with the fight taking place eight months before; the Ben-Adir prologue leads right into the main action. He and Kalukango are (justifiably) freaking out about Ben-Adir’s plan to leave the Nation and start his own organization. He hopes he’ll be able to convince Goree to come along with him on this Miami trip.
One Night in Miami is finite historical fiction, but King and Powers entwine it with actual history’s expanse. Even if the audience may not, the filmmakers know what happens to the subjects and how their stories end. They’re focusing on a point before tragedy, but also one where Ben-Adir can see that tragedy in the distance well enough to describe it.
After a brief, fantastic Liston match—where King is able to give Goree an even better spotlight than before—the action moves to the motel room, where the film will spend the majority of the remaining runtime. King and Powers open it up a little, with a liquor store run, a parking lot conversation, a rooftop dialogue exchange, but really it’s about this room.
Only Ben-Adir knows the plan. Both Hodge and Odom expect more people, some booze, and a better setting. Goree’s got a basic idea of Ben-Adir’s constraints for the festivities, but not his intentions for the evening; (hopefully) no one who knows about Ben-Adir’s plans to leave the Nation is talking about it.
Ben-Adir’s plan quickly derails as he and Odom’s mutual needling turns serious. Ben-Adir doesn’t think Odom is taking his position as a Black singer seriously; Odom thinks Ben-Adir’s a killjoy. It gets more and more serious, with Goree trying to play peacemaker while Hodge waits until the fists fly to get involved.
The film’s great success with these scenes is getting the exposition in; Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X is a natural lecturer, giving Miami a lot of exposition dump leeway, but having Odom’s Cooke default to personal attacks brings in a lot of character and relationship backstory. All four men have existing history with one another, but it’s all implied, even when they talk about it. King and Powers only have one flashback, and they save it for something everyone needs to see, not hear about.
As the night goes on, people will pair off for private conversations. Hodge provides counsel to everyone at one point or another, with his conversation with Ben-Adir the most affecting. It’s when all Hodge’s character work pays off. Meanwhile, Odom and Goree have a different conversation—in many ways, Goree can synthesize Ben-Adir and Odom’s hopes and dreams, with Hodge being the experienced elder statesman.
So while Goree starts Miami and the whole film’s “about” him because he’s the champ, the conflict between Ben-Adir and Odom is the centerpiece, and then Hodge actually holds them all together.
The best acting overall is Ben-Adir or Hodge, though Goree’s the most impressive. Odom’s excellent, too; it’s just less his film than Ben-Adir or Goree’s. Hodge’s the fourth wheel, so when he proves himself so essential—Hodge’s performance as Brown, not just Brown’s part in the narrative—he’s spectacularly impressive.
King’s direction is phenomenal. Early in the film, she gets to show off the grandiosity of the era, especially with Goree’s boxing matches. But those scenes are still all very focused. When she scales down for the conversations, she widens the narrative distance to make room for all the actors. The Night is about Ben-Adir because he’s the only one who sees destiny waiting for him, but King makes sure the other actors still get to build their characters when Ben-Adir’s running the conversation. Thanks to King, Miami doesn’t just not feel stagy or like a stage adaptation; that origin is actually a surprise. The direction is so focused on the minutiae of the performances, not the dialogue deliveries. It’s not about who says what next; it’s about how hearing something or thinking something affects how someone reacts. It’s about the performances, specifically Ben-Adir and Hodge’s performances.
All the technicals are outstanding—Tami Reiker’s photography, Tariq Anwar’s editing, Barry Robison’s production design, Francine Jamison-Tanchuck’s costumes. And Powers’s script’s superlative.
One Night in Miami is a singular film about singular subjects. It’s an exceptional, profound motion picture.