The idea of famous personalities converging in one starstruck place at the same time has been fertile stagecraft for decades. In the mid 1980’s, British filmmaker Nicholas Roeg adapted the play Insignificance by writer Terry Johnson that posited the idea of Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio and Joseph McCarthy winding around each other in a hotel over the course of one night. Johnson stated his inspiration stemmed from the fact an autograph of Einstein was found among Monroe’s possessions after her death. It’s an interesting film, but one that doesn’t quite deliver on Roeg’s previous visual panache and suffers from a static translation from stage-to-screen.
More energetic and purposeful is Regina King’s One Night in Miami. Also adapted from a stage play by writer Kemp Powers, the film “what ifs” a fictional meeting between great minds and personalities of the day. This time, the crew consists of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown as they converge in a Florida motel in 1964, battering each other with their political, musical, and athletic prowess. And even though the film feels stage-bound in certain places and restrictive in other ways, King’s simple direction and the four leads outstanding renditions of their larger-than-life personalities pushes One Night in Miami as something more than a wistful alternate reality drama.
But before that fateful night, One Night in Miami opens up the play a bit to reveal the circumstances each man finds himself in. All four happen to be in Miami because Muhammad Ali is about to win the championship by beating Sonny Liston in February of 1964. Sensing his disillusionment with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) invites Ali (Eli Goree), Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Brown (Aldis Hodge) to a “party” afterwards. As all three are national purveyors of social commentary, they’re also bound by the racist attitudes of the time despite their stardom, as one early scene between Brown and Beau Bridges resoundingly exemplifies.
What begins as a loose and joyous motel room celebration soon becomes a kindled conversation about race, entitlement, and the burgeoning civil rights movement as ulterior motives begin to emerge in just why Malcolm X wrangled everyone together. Like any good play, each character is given his big moment, and all four actors shine in their roles. If any one of them (or all four) received an Oscar, there’d be no complaints here.
As a first time director, actress King frames things simply and elegantly, allowing the words and performances of Kemp’s script to carry the film. And each actor wisely avoids caricature (although I suppose Ali’s temperament and flare is hard to tone down), embodying their personalities with intelligence and nuance.
Because both Malcom X and Cooke would be dead in little more than a year after this fictional meeting took place, the tendency to feel a dirge-like pessimism surrounding One Night in Miami would seem logical. Instead, the film chooses to celebrate the power-pop camaraderie such an event might have had on the world even if they couldn’t attack things as a unified front. However, if there’s one thing the film mourns openly, it’s the final moments as Sam Cooke performs “A Change Is Gonna Come” on The Tonight Show in early 1964. The tape of this performance doesn’t exist and Cooke never performed the song again. The powerful tune would gain a life of its own, claimed as a civil rights anthem and re-introduced to millions decades later. Like most of One Night in Miami , it’s fictional speculation, but speculation done masterfully and urgently.
One Night in Miami opens in limited theatrical release in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday January 8th at the following locations: Cinemark West Plano, Movie Tavern Hulen Mall 13 in Fort Worth, Movie Tavern Denton 4 and Majestic 12 in Greenville. It begins streaming on Amazon on Friday January 15th.