Four men gather at the edge of a nation that simultaneously exalts and oppresses them. They are famous, and at least a couple of them are generously compensated for the actions that earned them notoriety. They also are confined to a narrow path, receiving constant reminders that there is no latitude to stray beyond the borders. They risk being punished for any assertion that goes beyond what is allowed them by the prevailing power structure, almost entirely presided over by men who have no true advantage or superiority but believe they do on only the basis of pigmentation. Calling for the base dignity of equal rights should be mundane, understandable, expected. Instead, it’s an invitation to danger.
One Night in Miami spins riveting fiction out of a 1964 convergence of icons. The Florida city plays host to the title bout where a the cocky, brilliant boxer on the verge of announcing his name is Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree) first claims the title World Heavyweight Champion. In the audience, singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr) cheers, and activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) snaps photographs. At ringside, football great Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) provides color commentary for one of the media outlets covering the prizefight. Following Ali’s triumph, the quartet of famous men gather in Malcolm X’s modest motel room, ostensibly to celebrate. What follows instead is a fraught, fiery discourse on the pressing matters of the day, especially the civil rights movement and each man’s shifting place within it.
Adapting his play of the same name to the screen, Kemp Powers does a remarkable job capturing the distinctive voices of these four different men, bound by their shared place in a troubled, treacherous society. Powers finds ways to open up the work, but also doesn’t seem to be particularly compelling to hide its stage origins. The same approach is taken by Regina King, making her feature directorial debut after a long, prolific stretch of dropping into ongoing series to take on that job for an episode or two. She stages scenes with assurance, finding subtly dynamic ways to frame the visuals, always with a keen sense of how she can accentuate conflicts that are mostly verbal and yet often as bruising as the powerhouse punches Ali threw in the ring.
King strengthens the film’s impact through her artful scene construction, but she also knows, from decades as a working actor, that the best way to make a film like this is to both guide her cast and give them the room to develop deep, resonant performances. Ben-Adir, Goree, Hodge, and Odom are all exceptional, using the familiarity of their characters as a starting point. As Ali, Goree is most in danger of lapsing into mere impression, but he manages to push past that by carefully showing the boxer’s always brewing intelligence and, as he’s preparing to announce his allegiance to the Nation of Islam, his vulnerability. Ben-Adir has a different long shadow to escape since any portrayal of X is sure to be compared to Denzel Washington’s monumental turn in Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic. He can’t manage to outdo the earlier performance, but he very nearly keeps pace, especially in the scenes when Malcolm X is clearly feeling the doom he’s courting through his fevered — and appropriate — militancy.
The simmering tragedy of One Night in Miami is not just the fates of the men that are the four chambers of its throbbing heart, each of them punished in some way for their political and personal daring. The film’s heated assessments of U.S. society and Black people’s place within it are believably of the time and damnably resonant right now. Without overly pressing her point, King makes it clear that this one night staged over fifty years ago continues ever onward, until we collectively address the injustice that keeps it echoing.