Staged simply and leaning hard into dialogue, One Night In Miami can feel precisely like what it is — a stage play translated to film — yet King keeps things from becoming static by pulling the action outside the motel for a spell and stretching the time beyond its central struggle. Though the film is chiefly set on that one night, it begins in 1963. There, each historical figure is established within the context of a white audience. Cassius fights in an arena full of white people who boo his bravado. Sam plays at the Copacabana, where a white audience scowls at his song. In his Georgian hometown, Jim chats with a wealthy white neighbor, who pairs congratulations on the football star’s history-making season with a casually slung slur. Finally, a news program with a white anchor introduces footage of Malcolm, describing him as preaching “a gospel of hate.” This setup reflects not how America saw these men, but how much of white America did. In this, King urges her audience to recognize who gets to write the history of a nation. It is those in power.
Power is the central topic on this night in Miami. Each member of the quartet carries a power, won from hard work, resilience, and extraordinary talent. White Americans cannot ignore them, because they are on TV, on the radio, and — Jim reveals with a wink to The Dirty Dozen — soon will be in movies too. With a mind to the movement, Malcolm pushes the others to consider how they might use the platform of fame to do more for their Black community. His passion turns to preaching, which chafes at Sam, who bears the brunt of the orator’s stinging arguments. However, writer Powers keeps a delicate balance, never allowing one character to run away with the conversation by providing provocative counterpoints. What unfurls is an intense debate about what is owed and what is risked, offering no easy answers.The conversation swings from systemic racism to economics, colorism, corruption, and faith. Yet things never veer into the theoretical, as Powers’ adapted screenplay grounds it in facts and personal stakes. This gives King’s cast meat to sink their teeth into, and each does so with a gusto that brings history alive. Goree is bombastic and exhilarating as Cassius. He dances around the ring, throwing that pretty face at his opponents as a dare. His speed and exuberance are smirking rebellion. Goree masters the iconic boxer’s popping patter, yet never falls into the trap of comical impersonation. Instead, he is a vision of youth, athleticism, and unapologetic pride.
Slim and somber, Malcolm becomes Cassius’s foil. Ben-Adir smoothly takes on the punching cadence of the iconic speaker along with the precise hand gestures that punctuate his points. Yet Ben-Adir folds in a vulnerability that gives a peek behind X’s public persona. His tone is imbued with a soft melancholy that silently speaks of brewing troubles. His smile is sheepish as he presents his friends with a paltry snack of ice cream. To all this, Ben-Adir smoothly layers a world-weariness that reveals the tireless burden of this man’s battle, which underlines his sparking frustrations with those who could aid him but — as he sees it — won’t.
Where Malcolm is tense, Jim is cool as the underside of a pillow. Tall, broad, suave, he strides and grins with ease, knowing he is a force on the field and off. The others insist this pro athlete always says what he means, and yet within this story Powers finds corners to speak of insecurity as the football legend considers a new line of work. To this, Hodge brings a seductive swagger, a radiant charm, and a deep-set determination. As friends feud, he plays mindful mediator but without pulling his punches, knitting together friendships so rich they feel real.
Broadway star Odom slides smoothly into the shoes of Sam, whose voice enchanted with songs of yearning and love. Yet he must bring to this bouncy persona a fire that Cooke himself may have felt he couldn’t show. He does so with a brilliant burning that will have Hamilton fans cheering once more. In this way, King and her cast take these men down from stodgy pedestals of history and resuscitate them, pumping blood into their veins and breath back into their lungs to allow them to be more than history but human.
You can’t walk away from this drama with the cozy lie that things are so different now. Regina King won’t offer a consolatory end-beat that sings of promise and progress. She reminds you of loss, so we are left with the weight of it. We are left to consider what such a setup might look like today. (One could imagine artists like Ray Fisher, John Boyega, and Cardi B in such a room talking just as candidly.) What King gives us is a gift of insight, humanity, and then the silent challenge to stop watching and start doing.
One Night in Miami