One Night in Miami (2020)
Adapted by Kemp Powers from his own play, this biopic imagines what may happened when Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Malcolm X met for one night in Miami after Clay won boxing’s heavyweight crown. Well cast, well acted and well directed, the film succeeds best when it expands the story beyond its stage limitations. Whenever the foursome find themselves confined to their hotel room, the screenplay becomes, well... wordy.
An excellent opening sequence introduces the four principal characters. Malcolm X is publicly derided by a white journalist reporting on the Nation of Islam, Cooke gives a disastrous performance before an all-white audience at the Copacabana and Clay is knocked down by a white boxing champion in front of a partisan British crowd. Yet it’s Jim Brown’s encounter with an old family acquaintance that packs the most punch. Though it is suggested that Mr Carlton’s ancestors kept Brown’s ancestors as slaves, their conversation is cordial and respectful, with Brown welcoming the praise his genial host affords him. So when the affable Carlton, Beau Bridges in a potent cameo, makes a racist remark that is audacious in its casualness, it all but floors the NFL great.
Later, after Clay’s victory in the ring, the four friends retire to the Hampton Hotel where three of them are expecting a night of revelry. Malcolm X however has other ideas. Not only does he plan to announce Clay’s recent conversion, Malcolm X holds out hope that the boxer will join him when he leaves the Nation of Islam. With Brown and Cooke stunned by this development and Clay seemingly unsure of the path he has chosen, the stage is set for these four prominent figures to ruminate on the challenges they face and how best to advance the interests of African Americans.
All too soon Malcolm X and Sam Cooke are in bitter dispute. Regrettably, despite the passion that Kingsley Ben-Adir and Leslie Odom Jr. bring to these roles, their heated exchanges sound more like speeches than two-way dialogue. More effective is Aldis Hodge’s understated performance as Jim Brown, registering more with a few quiet words than any of his co-star’s diatribes. Equally impressive is Eli Goree’s dazzling portrait of a young Cassius Clay. Here is a performance that demands more screen time than the concocted battle between Cooke and Malcolm X.
Notwithstanding this imbalance, and the biopic’s inability to completely shed its theatrical origins, One Night in Miami is an important film. Though the arguments raised may be delivered in an affected manner, they nevertheless remain as relevant now as the time the film is set.
While Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Malcolm X did spend “one night in Miami” together, this film in an imagining of what occurred. Nevertheless, it is doubtful Malcolm X lectured Sam Cooke about the need to write a song about civil rights, as Cooke had performed 'A Change is Gonna Come' on 'The Tonight Show' two weeks before Clay won boxing’s Heavyweight title.
No recreations of movie scenes in the biopic. It does however mention Jim Brown’s first role in Rio Conchos and depicts him on the set of The Dirty Dozen. Sam Cooke’s performance of ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ on ‘The Tonight Show’ is recreated, but the original footage appears to have been lost. His earlier performance of ‘Basin Street Blues’ has survived but is changed to ‘Good Times’ in this film.