A Talk Amongst Friends
One Night in Miami is streaming on Prime
There’s a vast canyon of difference between a celebrity and an icon. Celebrities are famous, sure. Most of the time, that fame is earned. Here in the Denver area, there’s a reason why people still talk about John Elway. There’s a reason why, when Samuel L. Jackson appears on the screen, all those with taste smile in anticipation. Sometimes people are famous for being famous, which is an experience people in both the Kardashian and Hilton clans are intimately familiar with.
Icons are a different breed of cat. They represent something that speaks to the human condition, accomplishment, morality. When you see a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr., that image means something that transcends mere celebrity. The same goes for people like Bruce Lee or Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Like it or not, and believe me, I do not like it, Donald Trump is an icon.
At the end of the day, icons are still flesh and blood mortals. Remove them from their fans, their publicists, and their handlers, and they become if not normal, then something kind of close to it. For a certain period of time, residents of Minneapolis had a decent chance of waving hello to Prince while he was on a leisurely bike ride.
A frankly astonishing event took place on February 25, 1964. Cassius Clay, perhaps the greatest boxer in history, fought and won against Sonny Liston. Viewing the bout were musical virtuoso Sam Cooke and civil rights leader Malcolm X. Football legend Jim Brown provided color commentary for the fight. Afterward, the four men adjourned to The Hampton House Motel for a private get-together. What was said there? Nobody is quite sure, but Regina King’s film One Night in Miami gives us a fictionalized glimpse into the private moments of four extraordinary men.
During 1963, Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) is coming up. He’s got a reputation as a strategic boxer with a gift for trash-talking. That gift nearly gets him knocked out. Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.) is on top, though it doesn’t quite feel like it. He’s had a string of hits, but the all-white audience at the Copacabana gives him the cold shoulder. Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) is considering a change in careers, but a trip home to Georgia reminds him that the most mediocre white man won’t recognize the success of a Black man. Change is consuming the thoughts of Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), and when he returns home to his wife Betty (Joaquina Kalukango), he tells her he’s considering leaving the Nation of Islam to start his own organization.
Months pass, and on 2/25/64, all four of them are in Miami. Cassius plans to go up against Sonny Liston for the World Heavyweight Champion title. Once that business is out of the way, their plan is to head back to Malcolm’s hotel room and celebrate. Well…sort of. Jim, Cassius, and Sam are less than thrilled to discover that a) nobody else has been invited and b) the famously alcohol-averse Malcolm has ensured there’s no hooch in the room. There’s only ice cream, and somewhat ironically, it’s vanilla.
So they talk. They talk of their distinctive accomplishments, of how they have affected the Black community. Malcolm pushes Sam, perhaps a little hard, implying that he could be doing more with his music to change the world. Sam pushes back, also a little hard, implying that Malcolm is a self-righteous scold. Jim pays attention, carefully considering their points and filing them away, while Cassius just wants his friends to get along.
For that night in 1964, they were immortal. It would all change later, of course. One of them would be shot dead at a Los Angeles motel by the end of that year. Another would be assassinated the following year in New York City. The third of them, in a particularly cruel twist, would battle Parkinson’s disease after battling in the ring. The fourth is still with us, having moved on from the gridiron to scores of film and TV projects. Having passed through celebrity and life itself, they became icons.
I absolutely loved One Night in Miami. You can be forgiven for thinking that a movie about these four legendary men would be ponderous and pretentious. Director Regina King was confronted with the challenge that the majority of her film is essentially four guys jawing at each other in a hotel room. To overcome that challenge, she takes a little time initially with each of the four main characters to show us where they are in both their lives and attitudes. Once we have an idea of who they are, the fun is seeing how they bounce off of one another. King’s control of pacing is excellent, and we can feel the energy ramping up in moments of tension, then releasing as she allows us to take a breath.
She’s aided by what should be an Oscar-winning screenplay. Based on his play, screenwriter Kemp Powers does something more interesting than historical cosplay. He knows that each of these men has a distinctive point of view, and he always shows that to us in ways that are both logical and surprising. I loved that the trash-talking Cassius Clay is conflict-averse and that the fiery Malcolm X is also a gigantic nerd when it comes to his beloved camera.** There were several moments ranging from the somber to the strange to the flat-out hilarious, and Kemp never misses a beat with keeping the characterization consistent.
If you’re an actor, the pressure is significant when you’re portraying a real person. But having to do that in the shadow of two other significant performances? I think I’d crack. All four of our leads turn in outstanding work, but I think Eli Goree and Kingsley Ben-Adir had the tougher jobs. Goree has to make sure that, as Cassius Clay, he captures the man’s mannerisms accurately without mimicking Will Smith’s performance in 2001’s Ali. Goree’s Clay has a sweetness about him, and he seems delighted by the grand adventure of celebrity he’s embarked upon. Then there’s Ben-Adir, who has to figure out a way to play Malcolm X and get out from under the massive shadow cast by Denzel Washington. Ben-Adir’s performance is nuanced, and he shows us a Malcolm who’s a bit of a nerd, a bit paranoid,*** and more than a bit judgmental. I liked the stillness and watchfulness that Aldis Hodge brought to Jim Brown. As Sam Cooke, Leslie Odom Jr. balances his love of music with a need for practicality.
Too many biopics are content to sit back and show what their subjects did, letting their celebrity do all the heavy lifting. The best ones understand that behind the legends were complex human beings with fears, dreams, and goals. One Night in Miami focuses on a few hours in the lives of four men we all know, and their time spent laughing, arguing, and attempting a common understanding. It’s a film that’s sophisticated, intelligent, and one of the best of the year.
*King got her start on the sitcom 227 when she was 14, and she’s been working in either film or TV for her entire adult life. Considering that the entertainment industry isn’t known for its stability, that’s amazing.
**In every group of friends, there’s always one person who’s the designated dork. I’m tickled that, in this particular film, Malcolm X of all people plays that role in this group.
***Though in Malcolm’s case, they really were out to get him.