‘One Night in Miami’ is a film adapted from Kemp Powers’ play of the same name. The meeting of four friends, Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown in 1964 is the subject of Regina King’s captivating directorial debut. These men have gathered to celebrate Clay’s win over Sonny Liston. After the fight Cooke and Brown are anticipating a party, but little did they know Malcolm and Clay had a plan of their own. The evening was centered around the big fight but it also marked the time when a 22-year-old Clay was deciding about converting to Islam. Each of the men were facing a crossroad in their life at the time. Malcolm was getting ready to separate himself from Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation, and take what would be a life-changing pilgrimage to Mecca.
Malcolm, who was played by Kingsley Ben-Adir, is portrayed as a friend, father and husband fighting a silent war as he becomes more aware of his life being in danger. There was a delicacy and urgency to this portrayal of Malcolm. Kingsley said in an interview, “Regina and I connected on a very deep level about the idea that Malcolm in this movie needed to be a very particular Malcolm. He needed to be a Malcolm that we haven’t seen before. We needed to see a Malcolm who was just a father, we needed to see a Malcolm who was just a husband, we needed to see a Malcolm who at this point in his life was going through such monumental changes; not just in his political thinking but his religious thinking. His life was about to be in danger in a massive way. There was a vulnerability and a fragility about Malcolm in this that I really connected with on a human level and I thought there was such a decency about him, and he was such a beautiful human being and I thought that this was just a great chance to remind people that yes, he was a hero but he was a man. And the reason he was a hero was he must have felt scared and he still faced it.”
Eli Goree who played Clay, talked about the weight of playing this character. Though he is Canadian born, he has ancestral ties to American history and African American culture. Muhamad Ali, the figure, was present in his household. Goree said, “We grew up with these guys in our homes and in our families. I remember my Mom telling me, years before this movie came up, that the first time she ever heard a black person say that they were beautiful was when Muhammad Ali said it on television. That was the first time anyone had ever suggested that a person could have black features on television and be considered beautiful. It did something in her mind, it did something in her spirit. So, when I first got the opportunity to play this role it was a dream come true.”
Brown, who is played by Aldis Hodge, and Cooke, who is played by Leslie Odom Jr., were both at transitional points in their careers. Brown is considering a career shift and Cooke is considering the messages in his music. This film is a beautiful collage of history, real and revised, that gives insight into a critical time for these prominent black figures before tragedy would befall them all in different ways.
King, who has directed television before, took on this film project as she was touched by the intimate nature of the encounter between these men who are usually heralded as icons. King explained, “I also thought Kemp’s words were a love letter to the Black man’s experience. As an audience member, I feel like I don’t often get the opportunity to see our men realized onscreen the way we see them in real life.”
She went on to say, “We don’t get the opportunity to see the vulnerability that Black men possess and their humanity. You can’t have true strength without vulnerability.”
One of the more interesting aspects of the film is how Malcolm X and Sam Cooke are at odds about their responsibilities in furthering the progress of black people. King said, “For me, watching Malcolm and Sam was more of a reminder that all of those perspectives have to exist in order to actually make a movement move. And when you get to their conversation about social responsibility, that’s just two approaches.”
This film couldn’t have come at a better time as we in America are living through history right now. As the world around us is changing, but still unchanged, what responsibilities do we shoulder as black people still in pursuit of a true peace and freedom?