The story of ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI was inspired by actual events, which leaves plenty of room for speculation about what Malcolm X, Cassius Clay (shortly to become Muhammad Ali), James Brown, and Sam Cooke talked about in that motel room on February 25, 1964. If it was less the dialectic presented here, what each of these iconic figures represented and still represent in the struggle for racial equality and human rights certainly was and is.
The occasion is Clay’s decimation of Sonny Liston for the heavyweight boxing title. No one expected him to win, which makes the victory all the sweeter for him. It’s also, or so Malcolm hopes, the night that Clay will announce his conversion to Islam. While Clay thinks this will also mean joining the Nation of Islam, of which Malcolm is the spokesperson, Malcolm has become disillusioned with the Nation’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, both spiritually and politically. His plan is to break away, start another organization, and have Clay join him. As for Brown, one of the greatest football players of his time, he on the cusp of an acting career, and Cooke, fresh off a disastrous booking singing to a segregated audience, is planning a second attempt to win them over.
In the course of the evening, the talk will turn to the civil rights movement, with Malcolm challenging each of the others about their roles in it, and their decisions, or lack thereof, to support it. The arguments are compelling on all sides, with Cooke, both a singer and a very savvy businessman, defending himself with the plum example of licensing a song to the Rolling Stones. It topped the charts, making both Cooke and the black writer, Bobby Womack, a fortune even as it knocked Womack’s version off the charts. As he puts it, the Rolling Stones were working for him. Hard to argue the point even before Malcolm and Brown discuss the true meaning of freedom, which the latter ties inextricably to economic power. Clay, swaggering as only a 22-year-old can, is the innocent of the group, though even he sees the target on his back as a brash man of color in a society that looks on that with alarm. He only has to watch his spiritual mentor, Malcolm’s paranoia about being followed by the government. There is also, unbeknownst to the champ, Malcolm’s even greater paranoia about what the Nation of Islam knows about his plans to break away, making the solicitude one of his bodyguards from the Fruit of Islam, Kareem X (Lance Reddick at his most elegantly enigmatic) a sinister intrusion.
Director Regina King shows a deft hand at making a conversation in a downscale accommodation teem with energy. The camera moves are subtle but effective, never calling attention to themselves so much as providing a canvas for her four leads, who each exude effortless charisma tempered with simmering resentment against the racism they must endure every moment. It explains the short fuses each has when confronted about their choices, the most delicate and devastating being when Brown notes to Malcolm that is seems like it’s the light-skinned African-Americans who are the most vocally radical. As Malcolm is taken aback, Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm goes quiet in a most telling way. It’s just for a second, and when Malcolm speaks again, it’s with a subtle shading of over assurance that gives away how deep Brown’s barb landed. And Aldis Hodge’s equally subtle shift of expression tells Malcolm, and the viewer, Brown’s satisfaction.
Which is not to diminish Eli Gores as Clay, duplicating the cadences and the swagger, but also that ci-noted innocence, nor Leslie Odom, Jr. as Cooke. He gets how Cooke’s resentment of Malcolm’s inability to see his point of view or acknowledge his accomplishments for his community breaks him, and also fuels him to take the next step in spite of himself.
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI concerns itself with the question of how best to address “the struggle” as Malcolm X terms his quest for social justice. What emerges is the provocative idea that by demanding just one approach, “the struggle” is shortchanged by the attempt to reduce it to, you’ll pardon the expression, mere black and white The resulting dialectic is enlightening, infuriating, and a small masterpiece of political philosophy and filmmaking.