ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI (2020) has a wonderful central premise. Set on a night in February 1964, it imagines a hypothetical evening where four American legends – Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke – meet up to celebrate Clay’s boxing victory over Sonny Liston. This mythical event is treated with respect and seriousness. Everything is in awe of these great men, and it’s a respectful look at American history.
Kemp Powers wrote the original stageplay of ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI and he returns as scriptwriter here. His dialogue feels natural and fresh in tone, even if the hypothetical conversations are unlikely to have happened in real life, and certainly not as quickly as they happen here. The film is mostly confined to one location, with the four men loitering around a motel room and discussing their worries. It is obviously stage-like, but the film manages to feel cinematic and move away from just copying a play. Director Regina King does an impressive job, proving she is a capable director. Some of the shots are beautiful and the film feels less confined than it actually is.
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI begins with a long prologue. It shows the racist outlook of many in the early 1960s, with white people expecting black people to be lesser at everything, including singing and boxing. One scene has Jim Brown refused entry into a white man’s house, despite being respected as a great footballer by the homeowner. After fifteen minutes the film’s title appears and the titular night begins (though it starts during the day). The four leads have a lot to discuss, as they are successful black men in a world run with rules that oppress them. They debate how to deal with racial issues. Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam come under scrutiny, especially the way they antagonise white people. Sam and Cassius provide different counterbalances. One was successful within the rules, one denounced the rules. They inspired people in different ways, but most importantly they did inspire. A lot of ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI hinges on this. The characters are split on the audiences they should appeal to, and the politics and philosophies that should define the civil rights movement, but they are all important for their contributions.
More than just arguments, ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI gives its characters real problems to contend with, all rooted in real life and the prejudices which shaped their careers. Cassius has doubts and questions about converting to Islam. Malcolm suffers from paranoia, knowing he is being watched, while contending with his upcoming announcement to leave the Nation of Islam. Sam contends with being seen as someone who got rich and didn’t help other people. Finally Jim plays the peacekeeper between all the discussions, while struggling with his own career choices regarding pursuing acting or sticking with football. These things are rooted in history and reality, but watching the characters discuss these things brings a sense of awareness to the cultural significance of these events.
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI brings forth the 1960s, a decade of change and struggle, and manages to find a new angle to explore it. It brings complex and nuanced conversations to the table, about hypocrisies and righteousness. Yet ultimately it works because it centers on four fascinating men and gives them some fun moments as well as serious ones. Among the cast, Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown) and Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam Cooke) most stand out, but it’s a strong effort all around and the banter and chemistry between them is great. While ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI is a little cheesy and quite theatrical, it is nevertheless a touching and compelling portrait of important men.