‘One Night in Miami’ is a film brimming with intriguing ideas and unfulfilled potential

Jan 22, 2021, 9:20 AM | Updated: 11:55 am

The premise of One Night in Miami is so remarkable it seems far-fetched. Did four African-American icons really all hang out in a Miami motel room one night in 1964?

The general consensus seems to be that, yes, indeed, boxer Cassius Clay, football star Jim Brown, soul singer Sam Cooke, and civil rights leader Malcolm X all spent the night of Feb. 25, 1964, together in X’s room at the Hampton House motel, one of the few Black-friendly establishments in a very segregated Florida.

Some say they weren’t the only ones in the room, and some only acknowledge that they all knew each other, but all agree that if the meeting did take place, no one knows what was said. That gives writer Kemp Powers free rein to imagine for himself what did happen that night, the night an underdog Cassius Clay knocked out the reigning heavyweight champion of the world, Sonny Liston.

Powers, who is having a banner year, having also co-written and co-directed this year’s brilliant Pixar hit Soul, first wrote a play about this powerhouse quartet of friends in 2013 and has now re-fashioned it into a screenplay for first-time director (and award-winning actress) Regina King.

The result is a movie that’s full of potential, but it’s a potential that is never quite fulfilled. It’s brimming with intriguing ideas and clashing perspectives, but their delivery is unfortunately too stilted to be as dramatically compelling as the material deserves. My hunch is this material works better as a theater piece because stage productions already assume a level of artificiality that movies are loathe to accept.

The film can never quite escape its theatre roots — four characters in a single motel suite — but that’s not the main problem. What’s missing is the natural ebb and flow of great conversation. The starts and stops seem practiced and the clashes a little too pre-ordained. Sometimes emotional outbursts come out of nowhere, and sometimes they’re predictably precipitated by juicy monologues that are doled out one at a time for each character. When it’s easy to see the screenwriter/playwright pulling the strings, it’s hard to get caught up in the drama that’s unfolding.

That’s not to say what does unfold is bland or uninteresting. The various temperaments and life philosophies of the four friends are distinct enough to create profound conflicts of interests, even as they share the societally defining color of their skin.

The 22-year-old Clay (Eli Goree) may be a rambunctious new champion, but he’s also deadly serious about religious conversion. The 28-year-old Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) may be the toast of the NFL, but he’s chafing under society’s general racism and yearning for a breakout in Hollywood. The 33-year-old King of Soul Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.) is a hit maker who smartly writes his own hits because that’s where the money is. And the 38-year-old Malcolm X is busy recruiting Clay, and the others if possible, to the Nation of Islam, even as he plans on breaking with said Nation.

All four spend the night debating the proper role for successful Black men. Are they beating the white man at his own game with their success or are they benefitting themselves (and the white man) at the expense of their fellow Black men? What duty do they have to make the world a better place? Almost 60 years later, these issues remain as timely as ever.

Malcolm X challenges these masters of mass entertainment, these kings in the ring, on the field, and on the pop charts, to be more than mere symbols of success. Instead of tailoring their skills to please the white man, they should use their success to bring about radical political and religious change, he insists.

Malcolm X especially goes after Cooke for wasting his time on silly love songs, instead of writing Dylan-esque protest songs. But Cooke has a powerful retort — he’s using his financial success and his entrepreneurial skills to launch more Black-owned music businesses. The others also push back, even suggesting the civil rights leader may have ulterior motives for his revolutionary resolve.

According to One Night in Miami, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Malcolm X all emerge from that motel room changed men, and changed for the better. I have no trouble believing that’s probably true. Tragically though, within a year, two of them will be dead, making for a sobering realization that contextualizes the film’s closing uplift.

Listen to the Tom and Curley Show weekday afternoons from 3 – 7 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

Tom Tangney

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‘One Night in Miami’ is a film brimming with intriguing ideas and unfulfilled potential