One Night in Miami… is based on the play by Kemp Powers, who adapted it for the screen. For actress-turned-director Regina King, this was her first feature as film director, although she has directed a lot of episodic television over the past seven years. The film had universal acclaim when it was released in 2020, which was utterly baffling to me.
As the title suggests, the film is set mainly over a single night in Miami: the night that Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), who was still going by Cassius Clay, beat his arch-rival Sonny Liston in a huge upset for the World Heavyweight Championship. He had some famous friends there with him—Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.)—all men who are at a crossroads in their life, two of whom would be murdered within a year. They argue, debate and talk in the hotel room and a bar throughout the night.
The problems with the film are enormous, and they stem first and foremost from the script. It’s fine to make a fictionalised version of the events, but Powers doesn’t remotely understand the men whose mouths he is putting words into. There is literally a scene where Malcolm X is chastising Sam Cooke for not writing songs like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”’ I’m sure Malcolm knew who Bob Dylan was, but the chances that he liked this whiny Jewish boy from Minnesota’s music is zilch. Sam Cooke was influenced by that song when he wrote “A Change Is Gonna Come” and actually covered it from time to time, so it’s embarrassing writing.
All four men were radicals at the time (however, in his twilight years Jim Brown has became one of the few prominent Black celebrity Trumpists, sadly), and Powers is completely afraid to engage with the truly radical views of Malcolm X. Instead, he portrays him as not much more than a nerdy liberal, which should be totally offensive to anybody who knows anything about the man and what he believed. Kingsley Ben-Adir, who is a perfectly decent actor plays him that way (ironically, he also played Barack Obama in the rip-roaringly hilarious mini-series The Comey Rule.)
Leslie Odom Jr., who was constantly singled out for praise as Sam Cooke, is also horribly miscast. He looks nothing like him and sounds nothing like him (I will grant you, who does?), but most importantly he isn’t suave enough to pull off Sam Cooke. They also disgustingly fudge Sam Cooke’s bombing at Copacabana—he did bomb, but it was in 1958, not 1963 as the film implies, and a few months after the events depicted during that night in Miami he had a triumphant two-week residency there. The portrayals of Jim Brown and Ali are better, even though Goree never transcends delivering more than an OK impersonation. Of the four actors, Hodge most closely resembles his real-life counterpart. His portrayal is the best of the bunch, but he has the least to do. The film had some criticism for not acknowledging Brown’s long history of domestic violence, but the film is set a year before his first arrest, so that criticism is completely unjust—especially given that it has so many more problems.
The film ends up being at times a painfully dull liberal fantasy from Black Hollywood that is a mouthpiece for their ideas instead of the actual radicals on screen. It’s interesting to compare it to a film set around the same era and in a similar milieu that came out a few months later, Judas and the Black Messiah. That is a actual studio film (Miami is a quasi-indie) but still actually engages with Fred Hampton’s radical politics, and that is kind of remarkable. Spike Lee’s masterpiece Malcolm X also did this, but if Spike had any integrity, he would be condemning One Night in Miami… as much as he did Green Book (which is actually the better film despite its many many flaws), but he is too busy hawking cryptocurrency to care. I wonder if he got paid in crypto… I doubt it.
Criterion, which I suspect is releasing this mainly due to that infamous New York Times article rightfully condemning them for the company’s serious lack of black filmmakers in their collection at the time (they have released a ton in the last year), plus it would have been a easy film to license from Amazon, who they now have a deal with. There are three conversations between King and various participants, including an audio discussion with Barry Jenkins of Moonlight fame. The other extras are a featurette with King and the four main actors, a more standard making-of, and one on the film’s sound design. The booklet contains an essay from critic Gene Seymour.