PLOT In 1964, four Black icons gather in a hotel room.
CAST Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom, Jr.
RATED R (language)
WHERE In theaters now; on Amazon Prime Video Jan. 15
BOTTOM LINE Regina King’s directorial debut boasts a knockout ensemble cast.
On February 25, 1964, after defeating Sonny Liston for the Heavyweight Championship in Miami Beach, Cassius Clay made his way to the Hampton House hotel to celebrate with three friends: NFL superstar Jim Brown, soul singer Sam Cooke and the civil rights leader Malcolm X. It sounds a little too perfect — four of the most iconic Black figures of the era, together in one room — yet evidence suggests it really happened. Even more remarkable: No record of their conversation exists.
A perfect opportunity, then, for someone to step in and write it. "One Night in Miami," based on the 2013 play by Kemp Powers, is an extended what-if scenario that imagines the conversations and arguments that might have transpired between four men who were charting very different courses through the racism, violence and chaos of the 1960s. It’s an ambitious and impassioned film, so much so that it sometimes packs in too many themes — race, religion, art, economics — and puts some overly prophetic speeches in its characters’ mouths. Fortunately, actress-turned-director Regina King (an Oscar winner for 2018’s "If Beale Street Could Talk") has assembled a powerhouse ensemble cast, a mix of rising stars and newcomers who make the material sing.
The first to make an impression is Eli Goree, who captures every detail of the charismatic, kinetic Clay — not yet Muhammad Ali — right down to his amiable Kentucky drawl. The bouncing, buoyant boxer seems an unlikely acolyte of the militant, serious Malcolm X, played with earnestness and unexpected vulnerability by a terrific Kingsley Ben-Adir. Sam Cooke, played to perfection by Leslie Odom, Jr. (Broadway’s "Hamilton"), brings in an air of cool sophistication, but his facade crumbles as Malcolm X presses him to put his magical voice in the service of the Black struggle. Jim Brown, a Manhasset-raised football star taking his first steps toward a trailblazing Hollywood acting career, seems a less clearly drawn figure. The actor who plays him, Aldis Hodge, is capable of real power ("Brian Banks," "Clemency"), but he feels slightly sidelined here.
There’s award-season potential all over this movie, from debut director King to screenwriter Powers (who coincidentally is the first Black co-director of a Pixar film, "Soul"). Most likely, the Oscar goes to — Odom. Near the film’s end, his too-smooth Cooke turns emotional after striding onto Johnny Carson’s stage and delivering an a cappella rendition of his soon-to-be Civil Rights anthem "A Change is Gonna Come," yet another real event of which no known record exists. It’s a powerful moment that encapsulates nearly everything this impassioned film is trying to say.
Adding poignancy to this movie, of course, is that In December1964, Cooke was killed under murky circumstances and the following February Malcolm X was assassinated.