Movie Review: “One Night in Miami…”

At the end of last year, much was made of whether or not the TV series “The Crown” should put a disclaimer before episodes which, essentially, explain that the series is not a documentary. Yes, the show may feature real people and use real world events as a starting point, but it is a drama and has fictionalized moments and conversations and portrayals. Does it have to note that? I argue that it absolutely, unquestionably, beyond a shadow of a doubt does not. “The Crown” never claims to show exactly what happened, so why should it have to point out as much. I don’t go round explaining how I’m not a Michelin chef. I may cook a delicious dinner, but I’ve never claimed to have Michelin stars…. do I need, before I put a meal in front of my family, especially a really good one, tell them that I’m not a starred chef? Of course not.

By the exact same token, the new movie “One Night in Miami…” may be based on real people and a real night, but is an account that is fictional. It is taken from this one night (in Miami, for what it’s worth) and what could have occurred during it, not what did occur. As a movie, perhaps, people expect more of a truthful nature from such a film and it is required of one to say that it’s “inspired” by reality, but maybe not. Personally, I would never assume that what I’m seeing on screen in a movie is true even if a disclaimer isn’t present.

Those two hundred fifty words on the truth of one night in 1964 are more than enough because here’s the reality of the movie itself: it is excellent. Directed by Regina King with a script from Kemp Powers (based on Powers’ own play), “One Night in Miami…” is a phenomenal film.

This night in question is the night that Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) beat Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight championship and then hung out with his good friends Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Same Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.).

For the most part the movie takes place at Malcolm’s hotel, and they just talk. It is, largely, a heated exchange of ideas about the best way to promote civil rights, of the best way of getting to equality.

What we get, what Kemp’s script offers and King delivers, is a series of fascinating conversations between these men. As they move in and out of the room or up to the roof or go get some liquor or to make a phone call, King constantly changes the pairings so different men can bounce different ideas off one another.

Is Sam Cooke doing enough to promote civil rights? Is Malcolm X proceeding the right way? What does it mean for Clay to be thinking of joining the Nation of Islam? How does the world change if Jim Brown stars in movies rather than plays football? All of these ideas and so many more race around the room as each man considers not only their own place in the struggle, but the struggle itself.

It is a series of conversations of inner workings and larger thoughts. Each man has their own point of view, their own stance, their own way forward, and each man tries to make it heard, to make it felt, and to justify it. The movie is—as one would expect as it is based on a play—talkie, but it is genius.

That word, “talkie,” should in no way be read as remotely negative. Watching these men talk is the entire reason for the movie and the conversations are brilliant. Ben-Adir delivers his arguments with such conviction, with such power, that one can almost feel him reach out of the screen, grab you by shirt collar, and shake you until you see the light. Goree, when Clay is preparing to talk to the press, delivers his lines with that same wit and enthusiasm we all associate with the boxer. And, when he’s just talking to his friends, it’s still there, but it becomes this amazing, personal, quiet, thing. True or not to the man, it’s a wonder to see and feels right. Cooke is setup as the main opposition to Malcolm X’s point of view, so not only does Odom get to sing in this role, he gives some truly smart and moving speeches. Hodge’s Brown may get less to do than some of the others, but there’s no forgetting his presence. He is somehow always there, felt even if not seen.

Roger Ebert said that “no good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough,” and that is undoubtedly the case of “One Night in Miami…” I could have listened to these men talk for hours longer than they did. I would happily watch “One Weekend in Miami…” or “One Month in Miami…” because the ideas are smart, the words are great, and the performances strong. I watched two hours of these guys discussing ideas big and small and it wasn’t nearly enough.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the reality behind “One Night in Miami…” actually played out in anything approaching the fashion we see depicted. The exchange of ideas King presents is both real and forceful, the questions asked are valid ones, and the performances are outstanding. It’s out on Prime Video this Friday and a wonderful movie.

photo credit: Amazon Studios

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