One Night in Miami Grapples With Tough Questions on Race

Regina King’s adaptation of Kemp Powers’ 2013 play is understated and thought-provoking.

One Night in Miami is, in many ways, a simple movie. The camerawork is straightforward, the settings are basic (most of the action occurs in a hotel room), and the score is light. Regina King’s adaptation of Kemp Powers’ 2013 play—recently released for streaming on Amazon Prime—still feels quite a bit like a play, with heavy focus on the characters and dialogue. Normally this wouldn’t work well for a movie—cinema is, after all, a visual as well as auditory medium—but with the men who serve as the protagonists (Malcolm X! Muhammad Ali! Jim Brown! Sam Cooke!) and a sharply written script that captures the tension between their worldviews, One Night in Miami proves an understated and thought-provoking movie. This is a film about talking, a film about ideas, and, perhaps above all, a film about how larger-than-life figures are just as human as the rest of us.  

King takes us to the night Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), then known as Cassius Clay, first became heavyweight champion of the world. In celebration, Ali spent the night in a hotel room with civil rights leader Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and football star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). The movie is a fictional account of a real event, and it’s unknown what actually happened in the room that night. But in King’s and Powers’ telling, the four friends talk and argue, discussing what they’ve accomplished thus far and what they still need to do to further the civil rights movement. 

It’s this conflict between the characters—most especially between X and Cooke—that serves as the heart of the film as the men grapple with what it means to be a black celebrity in the 1960s and more broadly what it means to be a black American in the 1960s. What does black success look like? What responsibility do successful black Americans have to use their success, their power to help empower others in their community? How should the fight for racial equality be fought? X, Ali, Brown, and Cooke all have their own answers to those questions, and while the film doesn’t try to take sides, it’s made clear that despite their differences, each character—oppressed and suppressed by the majority white society—is simply trying to find some way to push back against their socially  and often even legally imposed limitations. It is also made clear that in their struggle for justice none of these men has found the perfect way to do so.

This was Ali’s night, but it’s X and Cooke are at the center of the debate, with X accusing Cooke of currying popularity with white audiences rather than using his influence to spread social justice messages through song à la Bob Dylan. Cooke charges X with extremism, noting in particular his harsh anti-white rhetoric that Cooke alleges was antagonistic and unhelpful in the fight for equality. Ali and Brown are somewhere in between X and Cooke in the argument, with Ali just about to join the Nation of Islam and favoring X’s outspoken approach and Brown growing disillusioned with making his money by working for white football team owners. 

It would be spoiling the film a bit too much, I think, to provide further information about their conflict and how it plays out, but seeing these men argue, seeing them defend their views and criticize each other, and seeing them even sometimes change brings a certain humanity to these figures and the camps they represent which are so often relegated to historical abstraction.

One Night in Miami is an intriguing film, one that may actually benefit from being viewed on a streaming platform rather than in theaters. It provides a certain intimacy to the whole affair, putting us in the hotel room with Ali and X and Cooke and Brown, with all their joking, their arguing, their rumination, and their self-reflection. It shows us these men that loom large over our historical consciousness and reminds us they were just that: men.