‘One Night in Miami’ review: Regina King’s directing debut electrifies

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In 1964, black icons Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown gathered in a Florida motel room one evening. This real historical anecdote inspired a 2013 play by Kemp Powers, “One Night in Miami,” and now actor Regina King makes her directorial debut with an assured, electrifying film adaptation.

It’s an ensemble production of the first order, its four leads taking standout moments at various points as the characters mull the state of the civil rights movement, the power and meaning of their own celebrity, and what the future might hold for them and for the country.

The occasion? Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) – soon to change his name to Muhammad Ali — is in Miami to fight Sonny Liston for the title of World Heavyweight Champion, a matchup the charismatic 22-year-old Clay is widely predicted to lose. His friend Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) is there for moral and, it turns out, religious support: Clay is planning to convert to Islam. Soul crooner Sam Cooke (“Hamilton” alum Leslie Odom Jr.) is in the city after a disastrous gig at Manhattan’s Copacabana club, where a nearly all-white crowd gave him an openly hostile reception. Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) is there for the hyped fight, too — though not before making a social call, en route, to a family friend (Beau Bridges) who ends their friendly porchside chat with a devastatingly casual bit of racism.

One Night in miami

Running time: 114 min. Rated R (language). Streaming on Amazon Prime.

It’s in the power of this latter exchange, early on in the film, that you begin to sense King’s deep feeling for this project, the way she’s adapting and expanding the play while preserving the strength of its dialogue, which stealthily drops emotional bombs throughout. As a performer, we know her to be capable of similar feats of dramatic brilliance, and it’s exciting to watch her transition that mastery to the other side of the camera.  

After Clay wins the fight, the friends gather for what the elated Clay and party-loving Cooke think will be a night of celebration. But Malcolm X has other ideas. Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X is full of humanity and melancholy alongside a seriousness so unwavering the other three can’t help teasing him about it. The minister and activist wants to utilize and unify their respective positions as cultural black superstars to benefit his own civil rights movement. But unbeknownst to the group, he and his wife are simultaneously planning their departure from the Nation of Islam, and a shaken Malcolm is looking over his shoulder for men who may be following him.

King’s direction excels at fleshing out these men beyond their most well-known qualities (although those are there too, particularly in Goree’s charming, mischievous egotism in his portrayal of Clay). She gives each actor his moment to shine — or, in Odom’s case, a handful of them, including a flashback to a stunning a cappella rendition of his song “Chain Gang” at a Boston concert. He’s charged and enigmatic, bristling at Malcolm X’s suggestion that he’s a sellout. Hodge’s Brown keeps his swagger low-key but intense, every so often busting out with an outraged and hilarious “I’m motherf–kin’ Jim Brown!” But it’s Ben-Adir who anchors this film. His portrayal of Malcolm X, in the year before the man’s assassination, is layered with heartfelt emotion and stone-cold resolve to put an end to the country’s persecution of black citizens.

At this moment in time, King’s directorial debut arrives like a thunderclap.

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