One Night in Miami (A PopEntertainment.com Movie Review)
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI (2020)
Starring Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Christian Magby, Joaquina Kalukango, Nicolette Robinson, Michael Imperioli, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Derek Roberts, Beau Bridges, Amondre D. Jackson, Jerome Wilson, Aaron D. Alexander, Hunter Burke, Robert Stevens Wayne, Randall Newsome, Matt Fowler and Christopher Gorham.
Screenplay by Kemp Powers.
Directed by Regina King.
Distributed by Amazon Studios. 111 minutes. Rated R.
Four men at the top of the world and at the bottom at the same time. Superstars. Civil rights icons. Pioneering artists and athletes making huge strides in fields that had only recently been closed to black men. And they were also friends.
Actress Regina King’s directing debut One Night in Miami – based on the one-act play by Kemp Powers, who also wrote the screenplay – indeed does look at one night in Miami. Specifically, it is mostly about February 25, 1963, the night that Cassius Clay (soon to convert to Islam and change his name to Muhammad Ali) won his first boxing championship against Sonny Liston.
Also at the fight was his spiritual adviser in his conversion, Malcolm X. Another friend, superstar NFL running back Jim Brown (who was just starting to convert to an acting career) was doing the broadcast of the fight. And massive hit singer and pioneering music executive Sam Cooke – another buddy of Ali’s – was in the audience.
After the fight, the four men met in a rundown Hampton House motel room (it was a place where blacks could go, though Clay and Cooke were staying at the more upscale Fontainebleau). Cooke and Brown (and to a certain extent Clay) were expecting to have a wild night of partying, celebrating the fight and the championship, but Malcolm X was planning a night of quiet reflection and eventually heated conversation.
One Night in Miami imagines what happened in that room among these four larger than life men whose lives were still in many ways ruled by racism.
This meeting takes on an added poignancy because two of the four men would be shot to death within the next year. Interestingly, there is a chyron at the end of the film which acknowledges Malcolm X’s assassination just under a year later, however there is no mention of Sam Cooke’s slightly more murky killing. Cooke was shot to death by a white hotel manager in Los Angeles just ten months after this meeting. The manager claimed he was agitated and trying to break into her office and the law ruled it a “justifiable homicide” after a bit of a kangaroo court, however for years there have been deep suspicions about the reasons and the background of the murder.
However, at the time of One Night in Miami, all four of these men were at the top of the world – or at least as close to the top as a black man could get in the Jim Crow south.
Yet, all four were at a crossroads as well. Clay was deciding if he should convert and embarking on what would be a stellar career. Brown was the greatest running back in the NFL, but he was intrigued by acting and the owner of his football team was standing in the way of that dream. Cooke was trying to balance his soulful and gospel roots with going in safer directions to court a white audience. Malcolm X was considering leaving the Nation of Islam and going on his own.
It is a combustible mix, and it leads to much soul searching, debate and outright argument.
Occasionally the movie plays a little fast and loose with the timeline for dramatic effect. For example, at one point Cooke does a long monologue about how one of the artists on his label – Bobby Womack’s early band The Valentinos – had a hit single called “It’s All Over Now” which climbed the “Race” charts, but barely dented the pop charts and made them no money. Womack was upset when a white British band called The Rolling Stones wanted to cover the song – effectively eclipsing The Valentino’s version. However, Womack got over it when the Stones’ version became a big hit and the royalty checks started coming in. This is a fascinating, true story; however, it did not actually happen until like four or five months after the action in the film took place.
Also, throughout the film, Malcolm X harangues Cooke about not writing songs that were more socially conscious. There is a flash forward in the end to Cooke debuting his new socially aware single “A Change is Gonna Come” to Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. It is a lovely scene, and the song is wonderfully performed by Leslie Odom Jr., however that appearance actually happened a few weeks before the Ali-Liston fight. (It was somewhat overshadowed by the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show two days later.) “A Change is Gonna Come” is one of the last songs Cooke recorded before his murder and was only released as a single posthumously, however it was already available as an album track before this all took place. Cooke never performed the song live after that one time, and sadly at the time The Tonight Show did not save the tape of the performance.
However, I’m willing to (mostly) overlook these little inaccuracies because the changes work dramatically. This isn’t a documentary, and you must always expect biopics to take certain liberties with the truth.
And One Night in Miami tells such a compelling story – making you a fly on the wall for a summit of four important men at the height of their careers – that you will be more than willing to overlook the small stuff. This movie has much more important things to impart, and it does so with skill and intelligence.
No one will ever know for sure what exactly happened in that Miami hotel room – well, except for Brown, the only surviving member of the quartet – but it’s nice to think that this is what happened. Now, thanks to the filmmakers, we can experience it as well.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2021 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 15, 2021.