It’s hard to imagine Cassius Clay ever taking a back seat in a discussion or standing down from a fight, but his is by no means the loudest voice in the room in One Night in Miami. Or, at least, not all the time.
For it is togetherness, solidarity and the power of a collective voice from four of the greatest talents of the Civil Rights Era that define Regina King’s remarkable feature directorial debut. Adapting his own 2013 theatre piece, playwright Kemp Powers penned the script for this who’s-who gathering of sporting, soul and political legends, and in King’s hands the material flies from stage to screen without missing a beat.
It is February 25th 1964 and the day that Cassius Clay will fight Sonny Liston in Miami. An even-handed prequel to the main bout introduces us to Clay (Eli Goree), fighting Henry Cooper a year previously in London; Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) making an ill-fated debut at the Copacabana; legendary NFL running back Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) visiting supposed family friends in Georgia; and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) returning home to his wife, as his plans to leave the Nation of Islam come close to fruition.
It is an effective opening that demonstrates the experience and point of view of all four will contribute to One Night in Miami’s successful portrayal of a common struggle, a burden they all must bear. And though these men were friends in real life, and did meet in the Floridian city in February 1954, some suspension of belief is required here. Ready to celebrate his title fight victory against Liston, the larger than life Clay – on the verge of joining the nation and becoming Muhammad Ali, unaware that Malcolm X seeks to leave – joins his pals at a cheap motel for a party to remember. But with no women, booze or food, two tubs of vanilla ice cream are all that Malcolm has to offer. This will not be a night to forget, but not for the reasons three of them think.
“Just because I am a militant doesn’t mean I don’t know how to have good time,” says their host. Ben-Adir’s weary, browbeaten performance betrays a knowledge that he may not be long for this world, and taking his brothers-in-arms into his confidence before the inevitable – which only he seems able to see – is vital. Kings of their own sporting professions, Goree’s diction and delivery is spot-on for the exuberant, ebullient Clay and a role of the eyes as he says “I told you he’s ugly” during the Liston fight is just superb. Hodge, more of a calming safety blanket to throw over fiery tempers, is nonetheless well aware of the injustice he has a responsibility to combat as an icon of sports, and soon to be action hero.
However, it is the conflict between Sam and Malcolm, with each given their turn to consider the other’s position, that sees both actors, and the film itself, excel. Does Malcolm’s constant anger and castigation of their oppressors help or hinder him? The undue attention it attracts is alluded to as his paranoia mounts. And does Sam really sit on the fence, or not see the line in the sand between ‘us’ and ‘them’ as Malcolm says – or is he more shrewdly playing the system his own way? There’s a lot to pull apart and King does so extremely well. Naysayers will decry her adaptation of the stage play material retaining too much of its theatrical provenance and – for the majority of its runtime – one-room setting.
But to do so overlooks that this is a superbly constructed film in its own right. Look past, or even simply ignore the source material, and One Night in Miami is a fraction in time of a period that resonates today. Less than a year after this night, two of these shining lights would no longer be with us and that knowledge hangs heavy in the air of that motel room. No doubt thanks to her own wealth of acting experience, King elicits outstanding performances from her cast, proving that big boys do cry when the stakes are high enough and love, respect and hope triumph over hate.
The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63