Amazon’s One Night in Miami centers on a 1964 rendezvous between four Black icons: civil-rights leader Malcolm X, soul musician Sam Cooke, NFL player Jim Brown, and boxing legend Cassius Clay, who’s about to join the Nation of Islam and change his name to Muhammad Ali. It’s based on the play of the same name by Soul co-director Kemp Powers, who fictionalizes this real-life meeting of worlds on the night of Ali’s historic victory over Sonny Liston. But the young boxer’s public conversion and equally public fight for equality aren’t the only changes the film precipitates. Less than three years after that night, Jim Brown would leave the NFL for his acting career. Long before that, Malcolm X and Sam Cooke would both be shot dead.
With the weight of this enormous history in mind, first-time feature director Regina King (star of HBO’s Watchmen) spins a tale of social change and the people who catalyze it, capturing the struggle of how best to fight for progress when every approach feels impossible or is perceived as a violent act. But in spite of its heavy subject matter, it’s also one of the most electrifying and downright fun historical dramas to come out of Hollywood in years.
King, who’s directed dozens of hours of television, including episodes of Scandal and This Is Us, invites viewers into a Miami hotel room — not as distant spectators, but as guests of Malcolm’s party. Most of the film unfolds in this private apartment, which King treats like a moving stage, enticing audiences into its space with the warm tones of the décor and the characters’ costumes. King adapts the energy of the theater: its ebbs and flows, the way it builds tension and holds it, and the way its actors have to balance subtlety with outward projection. She places the audience in the middle of riveting conversations between some of American history’s greatest icons, and stands beside each of them in private moments of overpowering doubt.
Powers’ play and subsequent screenplay use this afterparty to weave a tapestry of time, place, and contemporary politics, but historical dramas commenting on today’s struggles are a dime a dozen. What separates One Night In Miami is that the film is, first and foremost, about friendship, and the way people can challenge and bring out the best in each other.
These men meeting was no coincidence; while the dialogue and conflicts are largely fictional, the night itself was a real-life gathering between friends. It was also the last time the four men shared each other’s company. While history remembers them for their achievements, the film skillfully grounds them in their failures, both large and small. In vignettes ranging from wry to devastating, each man paints his relationship to whiteness, and to Blackness.
The film opens with Ali’s unsuccessful bout against Henry Cooper, dropping viewers smack-dab in the middle of what could’ve been the climax in a Hollywood sports film. It narrows its focus entirely on Ali’s corner, and his interactions with his team. Ballers alum Eli Goree has an animated, sprightly presence as a 22-year-old Ali, cracking wise to cornermen between rounds — but the specific way he cracks wise depends on who he’s talking to. His jabs with Black trainer Drew Bundini Brown (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) feel more familiar and more intimate than his professional banter with white trainer Angelo Dundee (Michael Imperioli).
A later scene reveals that while Dundee has no personal objections to Ali’s politics, he questions the optics, from a business standpoint, of Malcolm X accompanying him to his fight with Liston. Dundee and Ali’s relationship is boxing, first and foremost, while Ali and Brown have a shared cultural vocabulary, expressed both in words and knowing glances. Goree practically code-switches Ali’s body language when he turns from one trainer to the other. Fittingly, this disagreement with Dundee unfolds poolside, moments after Ali shoots his iconic underwater photograph (shot three years earlier in real life). King and Powers use it to establish one of their major themes: balancing iconography with the real men behind the curtain.
Ali’s relationship with his cornermen is echoed by Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr., Hamilton’s Aaron Burr) when he bombs at the Copacabana. A backstage jab about his failure from a white business associate strikes a nerve, while a similarly tongue-in-cheek comment from his Black bandmates leads to laughs in the safety of their green room. In 1964, camaraderie between racial lines has its limits. When Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge of Clemency) visits an old white neighbor, Mr. Carlton (Beau Bridges), Carlton speaks wistfully about Brown’s family and admires his sporting prowess — though he’s just as quick to establish how welcome a Black man is or isn’t in his home. Even Brown’s celebrity can’t protect him from being casually accosted with racial slurs. This failure is far outside Brown’s control, but it weighs on him regardless.
The film’s secret weapon, however, is Kingsley Ben-Adir of Peaky Blinders fame as Malcolm X, a figure whose well-documented relationship to whiteness both circumvents the need for a similar introduction, and forms the basis for his story here. Instead of an adversarial encounter, he’s introduced through a tender (albeit conflicted) scene with his wife Betty Shabazz (Joaquina Kalukango). Unlike the others, Malcolm isn’t hoping to bounce back from a single moment of failure, he’s operating under a dark cloud. His impending departure from the Nation is looming, and his paranoia over being followed by the FBI is beginning to consume him.
Once these foundations have been laid, the 80 minutes after the Liston fight see the quartet hanging out and engaging in spirited tête-à-têtes over vanilla ice cream (Malcolm’s skills as a party host were sparse, it turns out), and eventually butting heads over their views on how best to continue the fight for civil rights. King never loses sight of her central question about these characters’ place in the public consciousness, and how modern viewers relate to them. Her Malcolm X keeps his camera close by, taking photos of his comrades throughout the night — this is how the audience knows them when the film begins, as snapshots in time — but One Night In Miami is about what happens between each photograph.
The actors build seamlessly from one mode of expression to the next. Frolic gives way to aggression when new info comes to light, which in turn forces self-reflection. The screenplay feels like an intricate puzzle, imbued with life and humanity by the film’s four leads. The only time focus momentarily shifts away from them is when they get a check-in from two of Malcolm’s Nation of Islam bodyguards, whose perspectives on the group speak to how the outside world sees them. The young Brother Jamaal (Christian Magby) gazes at Malcolm’s celebrity guests with awe, stumbling over his words when requesting autographs. The older Brother Kareem (Lance Reddick Jr.), a spiritual guide to Malcolm, looks on them with critical caution, as if searching for flaws and hidden motives. The two guards reflect admirers and critics of the era, but they also embody the audience’s possible perspectives: Jamaal idolizes them. To Kareem, they’re fallible first and foremost. To Kemp Powers and Regina King, the truth lies somewhere in between.
After the introductions are done, One Night In Miami unfolds more or less in real time, sometimes breaking the group into different permutations to introduce new dynamics — like Ali and Cooke, whose playful conversation on the role of Black celebrity calls to mind John Boyega’s public image. But whether the foursome is together or apart, the film sustains its energy and tension consistently, thanks in large part to Tariq Anwar’s precise editing and the ways King and cinematographer Tami Reiker stage the conversations, with a keen eye for which character’s energy drives each beat, and whose perspective matters most in a given moment.
From a technical standpoint, the film’s constantly shifting POV is so meticulous that it’s wholly invisible. But the camera’s movement comes with an incredible sense of purpose; it stands resolute and still as each man makes his case, but slides and pans gradually as the film moves between perspectives. The framing is only overpowering when Malcolm’s paranoia comes to the fore, and the camera momentarily comes unglued from its tripod and sweeps alongside him as he charges from door to window. For the most part, the rhythms are born from the performers’ contrasting physical and emotional energies, and the shifts from friendly banter to passionate pleas.
One Night in Miami never actually portrays the brutality of white supremacy. The film’s historical antagonist isn’t racist bloodshed, though its specter certainly looms large. The characters are more often blocked by the imperfections and limitations in their perspectives. None of them have a flat-out incorrect worldview — they’re each just incomplete, and they find the missing pieces in one another.
The film is unapologetic in its depiction of Islam, specifically African-American Islam, as a philosophy where Black Muslims like Malcolm and Ali seek peaceful comfort, even as it guides their political struggles. (It’s one of the rare Hollywood productions where salah, or daily prayer, is depicted as spiritually calming.) Ali’s conversion, and the impending announcement of his membership to the Nation, become a central sticking point during the party, shifting the film in a somber direction. Ali’s faith is a personal journey, but under Malcolm’s tutelage, it’s also distinctly political, a direct action that forced the 22-year-old into a position of national leadership. But the more Malcolm expresses doubts about his place in the Nation — which Ben-Adir expresses silently, through subtle gestures — the more Ali begins to experience a crisis of faith as well.
Brown, meanwhile, expresses doubts as he stands on the edge of stardom, but only within the bounds of what white Hollywood will allow, while Cooke is similarly forced to question the ways he uses his voice as a Black artist in the spotlight. Doubt is a central theme and a powerful dramatic tool in One Night In Miami, as Malcolm X questions his legacy, deciding to leave the Nation just as Ali contemplates joining it. Each man seems to find his purpose in this room — or at least, begins to take steps toward it. The film unravels their fears and decisions just as it unravels its perspective on history. It takes American icons and strips them down to flesh and blood.
But by fictionalizing them, with reverence for their complexity and the perspectives that extended well beyond their mythos, the film makes them feel worthy of being mythologized onscreen in the first place. As people whose motivations were rooted in anger, doubt and love in equal measure, they become deeply human and deeply transcendent at the same time.
One Night In Miami is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
One Night In Miami finds the lively, fun side of some hard American history The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Polygon.