One Night in Miami: a heavyweight contender of historical fiction

Some of the most persistent images that we have of famous historical figures are due, in part, to their even more famous representations in fictional media. Shakespeare comes to mind, who has immortalized, among others, Richard III (in reality a man of a for-the-most-part average build and typically ambivalent ideas of governance) as a drastically deformed, vile, scheming political manipulator. One Night in Miami offers no such radical departures from the truth, however. Though based in a pretend set-up, the film is a highly entertaining, highly informative piece of art not in spite of its adherence to the reality and true nature of its characters, but because of them.

From left: Sam Cooke (Odom Jr.), Jim Brown (Hodge), Malcolm X (Ben-Adir) and Cassius Clay (Goree) gather as friends. All men give terrific performances, but Hodge is a stand-out. Photo: Netflix

One Night in Miami is the directorial feature debut of Regina King, based on a play by Kemp Powers. It concerns a fictionalized meeting between real life friends Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), who rendezvous at Miami’s Hampton House in 1964. While all four of the men have, up to this point, found varying levels of success in their radically different life paths and careers, the film’s fictional premise highlights just how each of them are at a crossroads, and turning into the legends that they will become.

While an absolutely obtrusive saturation of orange light colors most of the film (blending too many colors together, giving nothing any visual pop), the film’s most glaring flaw is its first act, where scene after scene clash with each other in tone and sputter to develop any narrative momentum. Each of our four leads is introduced in their own segments: Clay at a losing boxing match (over the sound of a terribly discordant piano); Cooke at a bombing performance; Brown in an uncomfortable reunion; and it is only X’s scene, coming home to a nervous wife, which hints at any larger story. These scenes, while vaguely gesturing at the characters’ conflicts, do poor service in establishing their goals, and providing viewers with any idea of how their arcs might be intertwined. Nothing clever on that latter part, either. Our not-so true story really begins once all the men come together to celebrate Clay’s win over Sonny Liston. There is no stronger motive for their meeting, other than to simply, well, party.

But, once our leads are at last gathered at the Hampton House, the film does, thankfully, find its conflict (mostly in the repartee between X and Cooke, who butt heads over the advancement of their people), and is quite entertaining thereafter. All four lead actors play their parts wonderfully, but if I must give special commendations then I will award them to Hodge as Brown. His performance is grounded and sincere, and while his character may be the least realized of the four, Hodge plays the part with everything that he’s got.

One Night in Miami is smartly written, and King, other than that first act, does a damn fine job over everything else in her control as director. The film’s subjects have clearly been deeply researched, and though it can oftentimes seem as though the dialogue reduces itself to expository dumps of trivia, One Night’s moral points and optimistic themes make it a movie well worth watching for all kinds of audiences.

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