Just like the recently-dropped Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom over on Netflix, One Night in Miami… (new this week on Amazon Prime) is a movie based on a play where a quartet of African-American gentlemen converge in a small location, eventually revealing just how much of a struggle being Black in America is.
However, the Black men in this production aren’t part of a backing band for a famous jazz singer. The men are famous themselves, and they will eventually become icons— or, in the case of two of them, icons who were cut in their prime.
Miami takes us back to that night in Miami Beach in 1964 when a young Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) beat Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight boxing championship. Three of Clay’s good friends — Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.) — were there as well. After the fight was over, they all convened to Malcolm’s suite at Hampton House, a prime motor hotel for African-Americans back in the day, to celebrate and unwind.
It’s almost too fantastic to believe that these four men were all in the same room at the same time. But, according to the myriad memoirs and biographies that have been written about them, this night did indeed happen. And even though there is no recorded evidence of what went down, playwright Kemp Powers came up with what might’ve taken place for his 2013 play, which eventually won three LA Drama Critics Circle Awards.
Powers also scripts this movie adaptation, which begins with each of our principal players dealing with their own individual issues. Malcolm is attempting to distance himself from the Nation of Islam, a move that has him getting paranoid about who’s following him, and who he can trust in his security detail. Cooke is trying to appeal more to white audiences, even after a botched performance at the Copa suggests they aren’t ready to buy his albums just yet. Despite being a football hero/credit to his race, Brown is itching to branch out and become a movie star. And, of course, there’s Clay, working hard to stay undefeated while also planning to take a cue from his spiritual advisor Malcolm and go Muslim as Muhammad Ali.
All of this is captured on film by none other than African-American actress and Academy Award winner Regina King. King certainly makes a big swing in helming a fact-based movie featuring four of the most beloved brothas ever to walk the face of the Earth, especially since a couple of them have previously had their life stories epically brought to the big screen by acclaimed filmmakers. (She does round up some impressive crewpeople for her debut feature, including veteran film editor Tariq Anwar and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s regular cinematographer Tami Reiker.)
For King, who has said in interviews that this is really a love story, it’s about showing the bond these men have, even when they’re aggressively pushing each other’s buttons. Most of Miami has the militant Malcolm and the more-welcoming Cooke verbally duking it out over who’s doing right for their people, while athletic warriors Clay and Brown ironically serve as the peacemakers.
She finds four actors who are oh-so-ready to do these men proud. Goree and Hodge both play their respective sports figures as brawny titans who also happen to be wise beyond their years. Odom, that multitalented Hamilton alum, is all spicy, chain-smoking fervor as Cooke, an artist who struggled to be a singer for both his people and all people. And British actor Ben-Adir obviously kills it as Malcolm – anybody who’s ever played the controversial, charismatic leader knows you have to come correct when you put on those trademark spectacles. And Ben-Adir shows how hard it was for Malcolm to even be Malcolm during this time.
With these guys out in front and King behind the camera, Miami is quite the appealing actors’ show. King and her performers capture a fascinating moment in African-American history, when four men at the height of their fame and independence came together for an evening of Black unity — before the turbulent ‘60s screwed all that up.
“One Night in Miami…” streams Friday on Amazon Prime.