Movie Review: One Night in Miami And The Failure of a Brilliant Premise

It is 1964 and Malcolm X, prominent black civil rights movement figure, has a secret; it is 1964 and Jim Brown, black NFL superstar cum actor, has just been racially abused; it is 1964 and Sam Cooke, black musical legend murdered by a white woman at age 33, has just been embarrassed at an all-white gathering; it is 1964 and Cassius Clay, to be known later as Muhammed Ali, has just won the most important match of his career. One night in 1964, these men are gathered, fatefully, in a small motel in Miami.

L-R: Leslie Odom Jr as Sam Cooke, Eli Goree as Muhammad Ali, Kigsley Ben-Adir as Malcom X and Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown. Via Amazon Studios.

           One Night in Miami is a re-imagining of a meeting between renowned black figures, negotiating and coming to terms with their duties towards the liberation of their people. Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown have all gathered in a motel to celebrate 22-year-old Cassius’ win over the heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston. Written by Kemp Powers and directed by Regina King, One Night in Miami continues Hollywood’s long-running romance with “based on true events” that are quite far from the truth.

Although the movie opens with Cassius Clay and builds up to his fight with Sonny Liston whilst brushing through quick intros of the other three lead characters, this movie is about Malcolm X. Malcolm X has just had his fatal fallout with Elijah Muhammed, leader of the Nation of Islam and is contemplating leaving the organisation. With aspirations to create his group independent of the Nation of Islam’s influence, Malcolm X heads to Miami to recruit the young and mercurial Cassius Clay. But nothing will go exactly as planned on this fateful night.

Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown and Leslie Odom Jr as Sam Cooke. Via Amazon Studios.

One Night in Miami attempts what great black struggle movies like Fences (directed by Denzel Washington and written by August Wilson) have done at conveying the struggles of being black in a harsh world through a dense, closely-knit plot situation. While One Night in Miami must be applauded for its historical re-imagining and narrative scope, the clap should be mooted by the film’s failure at executing drama to proper effect. 

Like Fences, One Night in Miami is an adapted script from a play text by its playwright with a black director at the helm of the ship. However, beyond thematic preoccupation and creative circumstances, there are no more similarities. One Night in Miami sets up a brilliant premise but fails. 

One Night In Miami poster. Via Amazon Studios.

There are excellent shots spread across the length of the film and the appropriateness of its soundtrack must be appraised. And while the plot has its moments of magic—Sam Cooke’s Boston show scene, Cassius’ quip lines, Jim Brown’s racial abuse scene—it slowly devolves into the superficiality of a clash of ideologies all resolutely resolved before dawn. It attempts to hinge great changes in the lives of three men to Malcolm X’s influence but it fails at this because these characters, the event itself, are all enshrouded in a dissociable idealisation. There is no newness to the characters beyond what is already known of them and this pre-knowledge is all the plot rests upon at its core.

Moments such as Malcolm X playing Bob Dylans’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” to ‘inspire’ Sam Cooke to later sing “A Change is Gonna Come” makes the film feel like a two-hour-long darkness lit momentously by Easter eggs; makes it feel, for a large part, like an old Youtube video of a group debate amongst historical figures of the civil rights movement. The film relies too much on the viewer’s knowledge of these historical characters and what they’ve done as background to rooting for them—it is the movie’s strength and, ironically, its undoing.

Ben-Adir as Malcom X. Via Amazon Studios.

Beyond Malcolm X, nothing tangible is done to give the other characters a soul. And while Malcolm X is shouldered with the responsibility of leading the film, his arguments against Sam are weak and supercilious; this is a brooding, boring Malcolm X. Kingsley Ben-Adir, Malcolm X’s actor, offers little room for acting dynamism beyond repeating words twice and resting his chin on three fingers to strike the iconic Malcolm X pose. Although Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X has some soul to his character, he lacks the chutzpah Denzel Washington’s had in Spike Lee’s 1992 film, Malcolm X to carry the film. 

As the movie proceeds, at different times, it conveniently isolates two of the four characters at varying times so that they all have at least one paired screen-time with one another. This is utilised in the movie for emotional resonance and to consider another persuasive angle to its ideological arguments beyond brute force schoolboy debates. Its obviousness makes it fail. It increasingly becomes obvious that the movie is a 2-hour-long screen bait of Easter eggs and ideological/argumentative exchanges comic-relieved by the young, witty Cassius Clay who is himself written into the film to help Malcolm X arrive at what looks like, but is not a true character arc. As for Jim Brown’s character (played by Aldis Hodge), he could be removed entirely from the movie and it would have little effect. He is like one of those new kids from everyone’s secondary school who was in the school for one week and never returned; some of us know their names, others know what they look like, yet others just remember their voice; but for the love of God, nobody truly knows who they are, they’ve just passed through leaving nothing but a fragmented vestige.

Regina King. Marco Grob for TIME.

The trope of reimagining historical figures into ideological arguments is a predictable and over-flogged affair. It might have worked if each character had aspirations, but too much responsibility was handed to Malcolm X, whose character appears to be caught in a boring moment of his otherwise illustriously long-drawn but short-lived dramatic history. What One Night in Miami offers is an extensive ideological debate that presents no new dimension to the history of black civil rights figures. Its director, Regina King (brilliant in the HBO series, Watchmen), like Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Steve McQueen, amongst others, has entered an important cinematic discussion. And by God, she has clever blockings, interesting transitions, and beautiful shots. It is her debut film and she will only improve upon this. Certainly, she is a director to be watched.

Rating: 6/10


“One Night in Miami” is available to watch on Amazon Prime. Watch trailer below.

Side Musings

  • The humour that defines Cassius Clay’s character in “One Night in Miami” successfully typifies him as he was when he lived. He lit numerous portions of the film with banter, one-liners, and that youthful overconfidence Muhammed Ali was known for. He was portrayed brilliantly by both scriptwriter and actor. 

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