On February 25, 1964, the man then known as Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston in Miami Beach to become the heavyweight champion of the world. Rather than have a huge celebration that night, Clay met in a hotel room with Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown.
That much we know is true. What we don’t know is… much more than that. One Night in Miami imagines what might have happened in that room, and what those four towering figures might have talked about as friends, and as prominent black men, at that tumultuous moment in history.
It’s a bold move for a first-time director to take on a movie like this, and while Regina King’s inexperience does show a bit in the film’s pacing, she knows how to stage a scene, she understands the nuances of what the men are saying, and she lets that breathe. The degree of difficulty here is high, and she acquits herself well.
Still, this is an actors’ showcase, and its power lies in the embodiment of how each man handles himself on a personal, political, and social level—they’re mostly only talking to each other, so they aren’t their public faces, but they are still who they are: Malcolm X exhorts the others to use their voices to overtly advance the cause, Clay is brash and entertaining but clearly at a personal crossroads, Cooke and Brown know they have strong voices but are using theirs in other ways. The push and pull between how each man sees himself and his purpose in society flips us from one viewpoint to the other and the good and bad of each, until we realize that it’s possible everyone is right.
We don’t know what happened in that room that one night in Miami, but we do know what came after, and how much the world was changing. These men knew they were archetypes, but they also knew they were Black men, still navigating a world that had little respect for them. That this film allows us to see them as both of these things at the same time is an acknowledgment of their humanity, and also of the fact that their conversations are still nowhere near being resolved.
Follow Fletcher Powell on Twitter @Fletcher_Powell.