Entertainment

'One Night in Miami...' Is a Profoundly Relevant Film for Our Modern Times

Though it's set during one fateful night in 1964, Regina King's directorial debut 'One Night in Miami' feels like a referendum on American Blackness in the present.

one night in miami
TIFF

In the third act of One Night in Miami, musician Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.) asks his good friend Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) why he became such a serious person. “You used to be more,” Cooke says with disappointment in his voice. X responds by recalling the night they met when Cooke performed “Chain Gang” a cappella after his microphone was cut off during a concert. Standing in the back of the room, Malcolm can barely hear the vocals but he sways to the beat. 

Regina King’s feature directorial debut — styled as One Night in Miami... and which premiered at this year's strange, mostly virtual Toronto International Film Festival — has a few of these small, character-revealing scenes scattered throughout, giving us some much-needed space within the confinements of her chamber piece. The film, based on the play of the same name by Kemp Powers, depicts one fateful night in the lives of four beloved Black figures: Cooke and Malcolm X are joined by famous football player Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and the newly minted heavyweight champion Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) at the Hampton House Motel in Miami, 1964.

The film begins in biopic fashion, introducing us to each man and his work. Clay is preparing for the big fight with Sonny Liston and fielding concerns from investors about his association with Malcolm. Cooke bombs at the Coco Cabana and laments about his career. Jim Brown has a racist encounter with a seemingly nice white man (Beau Bridges). Of the four, Malcolm has the biggest problem: He wants to leave the Nation of Islam, but fears for his family’s safety. Malcolm’s entire life is funded by the Nation, so without them he would be fully alone, fighting by himself without a support system or protection.

Each man is at a turning point in their lives, trying to figure out their next move while the world is watching. For Malcolm and Cassius, the decision is a religious one. Clay is converting to Islam and Malcolm is planning a pilgrimage to Mecca in order to find clarity in his faith. Comparatively, Cooke and Brown have more ego-driven choices to make. They are both looking for the kind of fame that leads to being loved and revered by white audiences. In their minds, more success for them will lead to progress and racial unity. 

One Night in Miami forgoes a traditional plot to create what is essentially a feature-length ideological debate regarding the future of Black people in America. Malcolm X and Cook stand at opposing sides of the debate, with one favoring total service to the Civil Rights movement and the other arguing for personal success as a pathway to liberation. Clay can see both sides, but seems to want to be a less self-involved person, using Islam as a pathway towards better understanding. Brown acts as the mediator, favoring Cooke’s perspective while also being respectful to Malcolm’s point of view.

Goree seems to be having the most fun here, playing Clay with down-home confidence and bombast. His energy falters the deeper the men delve into conversation, but as the youngest and most naive of the men, it ultimately works for the narrative. Of the four, Brown is the least developed, but Hodge does good work with the role, bringing humor and levity to the long, often tense conversation. As Cooke, Odom Jr. struggles to bring nuance to a complicated, enigmatic man. And in the absence of a villain, Cooke is the antagonist, challenging Malcolm’s notions of community responsibility with a more liberal, individualized approach.

There’s no question that Ben-Adir is the star of the film. The actor deftly embodies the urgency and dignity of Malcolm X, as a speaker, husband, and father. The scenes where he speaks to his family are tender, with Joaquina Kalukango doing subtle work as his wife and confidante Betty Shabazz. The film hangs heavy with our knowledge of what’s to come for these men, knowing what we know now about Malcolm’s eventual assassination, as well as the future assassinations of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Black Panther leader Fred Hampton; it’s hard to have patience for Cooke and Brown’s moderate points of view. 

Though it takes place in the past, One Night in Miami feels like a film in conversation with the immediate present. In 2020, we know that it is possible for Black people to become part of the wealthy class. But in this time of political unrest and racist police killings, that hardly seems to matter. We know now that Black wealth cannot save us. Therefore, Malcolm’s argument for full commitment to the uplifting of Black people everywhere is a salient one. The fight for freedom will always be a community undertaking.

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Jourdain Searles is a writer and podcaster whose work has appeared in Bitch Media, Paste Magazine, and more. You can follow her on Twitter @jourdayen.