‘One Night in Miami’ is required viewing for 2021 


Amazon Prime Video premiered Regina King and Kemp Power’s “One Night in Miami…” at the end of last year. The film has received positive responses from viewers and high ratings from critics. The film has earned three awards to its title so far and many nominations are being projected for the future.

Gaby Jones, Culture Editor

“One Night in Miami” is a fascinating dive into the minds and feelings of some of the most prominent historical Black figures in America. Released on Dec. 25, 2020, longtime actress, Regina King, makes her featured film directorial debut in a film that feels timelessly vital. 

“One Night in Miami” was originally adapted from a 2013 play that is identically titled. The playwright, Kemp Powers (who also wrote the screenplay for Pixar’s “Soul”) fittingly writes the screenplay for the film and as you watch it, the story’s origins come as no surprise. In most circumstances it is expected that a play is carried by dialogue and that aspect is truly kept in the adaptation. However, the film version holds a new level of intimacy because the awareness to the fourth wall is less prevalent. 

The film is a fictional interpretation about a meeting between Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Mohammad Ali (Eli Goree), who is introduced as Cassius Clay. The story is centered around one night, Feb. 25, 1964, where the group comes together in a Hampton Hotel room in Miami after Clay’s boxing victory. 

Before the main characters come together, the film opens with a few scenes that begin to describe their circumstances and conflicts that will later carry into the conversations had in the hotel. Clay is playing at Wembley stadium and his overconfidence gets him knocked out by his opponent. Then, the focus is turned to Cooke who is in New York City performing for an all-white audience and the overwhelming negative reception leaves him humiliated. Next, we meet Brown, a famous NFL player, as he returns to his home state and is kindly welcomed by one of his neighbors. The scene has an immediate shift when the wealthy white neighbor casually denies Brown’s offer to help move his furniture by calling him the N-word. Finally, we get to Malcolm, who nervously arrives home to his wife and children. With his wife, he shares his concerns about the potential danger that could arise as a result of tension that has been built between him, white mainstream media, and the Nation of Islam about his activism. 

After the fight, the four of them get to the hotel room, and Malcolm, who is the self-proclaimed host of the evening, explains how he wanted this night to be about them “reflecting” together. Clay, Cooke, and Brown who had initially assumed they were going to be partying to celebrate the Clay’s big win are visibly disappointed. 

Almost immediately, Malcolm’s militant and intellectual nature gets the better of conversation and topics of self-pride, political responsibility, and their overall contribution to civil rights are brought up. As well as that, the topics that were hinted at in the previous scenes begin to be explored. 

Early on, Brown confides in Clay about his struggle regarding his desire to see out a future in acting and leaving the NFL behind. Brown speaks about how white people will try and “[tap] into our passions to a point that we forget about the importance stuff.” Throughout the film, Brown is the most leveled which causes the focus to shift from off of him and on to the other three quite often. 

From the beginning, the relationship between Cassius Clay and Malcolm X is one of the more prominent and throughout, there is a running focus on Clay’s newfound relationship with Islam. Although encouraged by Malcolm, there is a lingering discourse between the other men about what Clay would be giving up and also taking on. When Malcolm learns of Clay’s doubts he is crushed, but soon after it is revealed to the group that Malcolm will be leaving the Nation of Islam and starting his own organization. When Clay receives this news, he is furious, and wonders if Malcolm had only been mentoring him to urge him to join his new organization and gain support for his movement.  

A reassuring sentiment made by Malcolm eases the hostility from both parts. He states, “If you don’t believe in your heart that I have been an honest friend to you and that you shouldn’t join…if any part of you that believes that our time together has been motivated in any way by selfishness or opportunism on my part, brother, I encourage you walk away from me.” After a minute of reluctance, Clay seemingly forgives Malcolm, and Clay decides that he wants to publicly announce that he is converting to Islam and he asks that Malcolm be by his side when he does. 

Malcolm inserts a discussion to the group regarding the role of Black celebrities in a country that upholds a standard of whiteness and industries that are saturated with white people. Cooke passes Malcolm’s comments and political stances as attempts “to rile up white folks” and Malcolm pushes back by stating Cooke neglects his identity trying to appease white people. 

Malcolm argues that Cooke has sold out the Black community and makes music that is bland, dull and lacks the substance he could easily bring. Cooke defends his decisions stating that he is a businessman and that he has helped many black artists in his career thus far. Tension builds in these moments and is heightened when Malcolm gets the inkling that he is being watched by the federal government from outside the hotel room. 

Going back to Malcolm and Cooke’s tense interaction, the conversations brought up by these two are the main focus of this film. Malcolm compares the substance of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” to the works of Cooke. Malcolm wonders why a white man can easily sing about his “struggles,” but Cooke, who actively faces flagrant and systematic struggles because of his race, cannot sing about his own. 

The interaction between these two friends is especially interesting because it highlights the humanization of a Black person’s fight for racial justice and how much weight is placed on the individual to be in charge of the change they want to see.  

Later, Cooke reveals to Brown that he feels that he should have written Dylan’s song and that he has written about the movement before but has just never sang it for anyone. He shares what he has been recently working on and describes the material as being “different.” This moment affirmed Brown’s belief that Cooke is aware of what the white people “really think of him.” 

An interaction that I do not believe was focused on enough was between Malcolm and Brown. The interaction touches on colorism, the power of economic freedom, and the extent at which outspoken Black voices are a necessity. The exchange is steady and simple (both in delivery and camerawork), but also impactful and it drove an emotional plot line in the story along. 

When the group finally leaves the hotel room, they rejoice in a briefly shown celebration at a restaurant. Even then, Malcolm’s lingering sense of paranoia and fear that his life may be coming to an end is sustained. These moments carry the audience into the final events that happen after that one night. 

Sam Cooke is shown performing, “A Change Is Gonna Come” on The Tonight Show (this being his previously mentioned new material) and the audio is sustained through the depiction of the other men’s flashforward events. 

Cassius Clay is shown formally assimilating into the Nation of Islam and now being referred to as Muhammad Ali. Malcolm X is shown evacuating his New York City home after a Molotov cocktail (petrol bomb) is thrown into it. Jim Brown is shown officially retiring from the NFL to pursue his movie career. 

The final scene depicts Malcolm and his family sitting in a motel room. He sits with a copy of his autobiography, signaling that he knows his last days are ahead. He watches a teary-eyed Sam Cooke finish his performance on the motel TV set. He finally shuts his eyes and exhales in a way that seems to be an acceptance of fate and a final moment of peace. 

When watching this film, I was already aware of the fates of both Malcolm and Cooke and I noticed how closely the night of the meeting corresponded with the dates of their tragic deaths. This ending showed how Cooke took inspiration from Malcolm’s words that night and the final look Cooke gives the camera is like a release of words that had been building up inside of him for a long time. Just as Malcolm had wanted Cooke had become, “loudest voice of us all” by sharing their struggles to the whole world. 

The final scene solidifies the importance of impacting others and instilling a sense of optimism in those who come after you. In doing this, the last scene is undeniably beautiful and wraps up the film perfectly. 

In a LA Times interview Kemp talks about how he hopes the ending will speak to Black youth stating, “Even if all of us can’t make it to the finish line, we can do what we can to propel one another and hold one another up.” This sentiment was surely received by the end of the film.  

In King’s featured film debut she finds a way to bring sincerity to the unknown. Utilizing the intimacy of the original play format, King is relentless in finding moments that speak to the audience without feeling overly theatrical. The four leads all had remarkable performances that truly brought the humanity out of figures who are often condensed to only being their accomplishments. 

I recommend this film, not only for the actors and the plot, but also because of the themes of social change that reflect accurately on the modern world.