February 25, 1964: Muhammed Ali (then still Cassius Clay) beats Sonny Liston to become the boxing heavyweight champion of the world — Regina King’s One Night in Miami presupposes that there’s more to the story than that. Adapted by Kemp Powers from his own stage play, the film imagines that on the night Clay wins the title, he was joined by three other larger-than-life Black Americans — civil rights leader Malcolm X, football player Jim Brown, and singer Sam Cooke — to revel in victory and deliberate the past, the future, and everything in between.
In her directorial debut, King shows a preternaturally deft touch with actors, bringing together a cast whose interplay is the key to the film’s success. All four leads are fantastic: Kingsley Ben-Adir brings a tired yet optimistic humanity to Malcolm X, Eli Goree’s Clay is filled with youthful energy and trepidation over how his next move will affect his life, Aldis Hodge quietly steals the show as a cautiously savvy Jim Brown, and Leslie Odom Jr. embodies the contradictions of Cooke as a man reaching the pinnacle of his profession despite the roadblocks he faces. Each man is distinctly drawn through collaboration between King, Powers, and the actors, resulting in an interwoven quartet of intimate character studies that together serve as a snapshot of a historical inflection point.
If there’s a knock on One Night in Miami it’s that it can’t quite shake the theatricality in its transition from stage to screen. The cinematography by Tami Reiker is steady and clean but lacks some of the touch exhibited in her collaborations with Gina Prince-Bythewood, furthering the sense of stagebound action, and one gets the sense that large chunks of the dialogue made their way from play to screenplay mostly untouched. For the most part that’s a minor gripe, especially when the conversations that dialogue comprises are so rich. The banter between the men is clever and engaging, with levity interspersed amidst talk about weighty matters of religion, race, and community. Tempers run high, but in the way you might expect from talented, ambitious individuals trying their best in a world that’s stacked against them.
Each actor gets their time to shine, although the standouts are ultimately Hodge, who is steadily proving himself to be one of the most talented performers around, and Ben-Adir, who manages the incredibly impressive feat of bringing fresh perspective not just to one of America’s most iconic figures, but to one who has already seen one of America’s most iconic actors portray him in a career-defining performance. Ben-Adir’s Malcolm is a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, filled with grace and imbued with a touch of melancholy foreshadowing the events we know will come to pass. But One Night in Miami is a celebration of life, not a story of tragedy, and stands as a signifier that King will be an artistic force to be reckoned with on both sides of the camera.