REVIEW: ‘One Night in Miami’ (2020) is a Triumph of Black Humanity

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“A feat of storytelling, a rare film about historical greats that doesn’t care what made them great, but rather about what made them men.”

57 years ago, on a warm February night, four men came together to celebrate a not-yet converted Cassius Clay’s unexpected victory over heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston. However, the men—Clay, activist Malcolm X, singer-songwriter Sam Cooke, and athlete Jim Brown—did not find themselves at a party, or a club, or in a throng of rejoicing fans and media; instead, the foursome congregated in an unassuming room at the Hampton House Motel in Miami, a popular destination among Black visitors to the city. “Let’s go over there,” Clay reportedly told Brown, who had planned a victory party at another, more luxurious hotel. “I want to talk to you.” But there, the reports end. The next day, Clay—who would shortly thereafter become Muhammad Ali—emerged from his night of celebration and officially announced his conversion to the Nation of Islam. He and his friends never spoke publicly of their night together, and the details of their conversations are now lost to the tides of time. Today, we are left with only a thought: how does history unfold away from prying eyes? 

Eli Goree as Cassius Clay stands in the corner of a boxing ring, talking to two men who are his trainers/coaches.
Eli Goree as Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

This is the question that One Night in Miami strives to answer: the film takes place on that fateful February night, inviting us behind history’s—and the Hampton House Motel’s—closed doors. But, in spite of the cultural stature of its protagonists, the film is not actually concerned with history. Instead, by deftly weaving fact, fiction, and feeling, Regina King—working from a screenplay written by Kemp Powers, who also wrote the play on which the film is based—uses her feature directorial debut to present men who are not unknowable, far-away historical figures but rather men we can recognize, standing at a crossroads. 

As they file into the room, each man’s worries are clear: X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), anxious and worn down, is being pursued by the FBI as he prepares to leave his once-beloved Nation of Islam; Clay (Eli Goree), on the other hand, prepares to announce his controversial decision to join the Nation, even as he shoots to international acclaim with his newly-won heavyweight championship; Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.) struggles to balance his musical and familial roots with the (white) market’s demands; and Brown (Aldis Hodge) struggles with the feeling that he is no longer at home in his career. What each man has done, what he’s known for, is only half the story; the film and its protagonists are far more interested in how they do those things and for whom. “What kind of message are you sending?” Malcolm asks. The debate that follows is familiar to Black people both then and now: what is the meaning of Black success? What do we owe ourselves and each other? Is freedom about individual success or collectivism? Fueled by nothing more than the sweetness of victory and X’s meager supply of vanilla ice cream, the four men search for the ever-elusive answers. 

From left to right: Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke. The men are in conversation, standing outside on a rooftop.
Clay, X, Brown, and Cooke. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

King expertly strips away the trappings of fame and the burdens of hindsight to reveal the self-doubting, exhausted men underneath these imposing legends as they spend their night in Miami contemplating not Black suffering or death, but Black life and the best way to live it. “You were always so much… more,” Cooke tells X; it seems that King is telling her hallowed men the same thing. The cast—playing wonderfully off each other in the lived-in rhythms of genuine friendship—is in peak form, helping King to eschew depictions of historical caricatures and infallible icons and instead filling her simple sets with humid air, celebratory feelings, and familiar uncertainties. Her direction is easy, unembellished and strikingly visceral, much like Cooke’s impromptu a cappella performance of “Chain Gang”. (That scene, in particular, is a mesmerizing, beautiful reminder of the contagious physicality of Black joy.) It makes it so that, even in the tensest moments, the film feels overwhelmingly like a moment of peace. And though in the end, X, Clay, Cooke and Brown do not necessarily find answers to the questions that plague them, though both Cooke and X would soon thereafter meet their untimely deaths, King manages to give us a remarkably hopeful conclusion. Cooke sings “A Change is Gonna Come,” and against all odds, you believe him. Someway, somehow, there is a way forward, not in idolatry, but in humanity. One Night in Miami is a feat of storytelling, a rare film about historical greats that doesn’t care what made them great, but rather about what made them men. 

Dir: Regina King

Prod: Jess Wu Calder, Keith Calder, Jody Klein

Cast: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom, Jr.

Release Date: December 25, 2020

Available on: Amazon Prime

Header image courtesy of Amazon Studios