They were — and are — four legendary figures, a quartet of Black icons who made their impacts in the world through politics, religion, arts and sports. Malcolm X. Muhammad Ali. Sam Cooke. Jim Brown.
These 1960s giants are said to have spent one evening in a Florida motel room conversing after Ali — then known as Cassius Clay — defeated Sonny Liston to become the world heavyweight boxing champion.
This meeting served as the inspiration for Kemp Powers to write “One Night in Miami,” an award-winning play that debuted in 2013 and now sees its film adaptation — penned by Powers — landing on Prime Video a few months after debuting at film festivals in Venice and Toronto.
Although he immersed himself in biographies on the four men and dug up what he could about this night, Kemp was left to create a fictional account on what happened in the Hampton House Motel in Overtown, Florida — said to have been a haven for Blacks visiting Miami in those days.
In the hands of first-time feature-film director Regina King, Kemp’s imagined interactions among the men are at times captivating, at others in need of a bit more dramatic punch.Leslie Odom Jr. portrays Sam Cooke in “One Night in Miami.” (Patti Perret/Amazon Studios)
Ultimately, though, the film’s four lead actors — Leslie Odom Jr., Kingsley Ben-Adir, Aldis Hodge and Eli Goree — push “One Night in Miami” into should-watch territory, if not quite into the realm of the must-see.
We meet each of the four men apart from each other: Cassius (Goree) fighting Henry Cooper in 1963; Muslim leader Malcolm (Ben-Adir) at home with his worried wife as he moves closer to a break with The Nation of Islam; singing star Sam (Odom) bombing at the packed-with-whites famed Copacabana; and Cleveland Browns running back Jim (Hodge) driving to visit a wealthy white associate in Georgia.
Once together with him in Malcolm’s motel suite on Feb. 25, 1964, his three guests are disappointed to learn he hasn’t invited them for a wild celebration of Cassius’ victory but instead a night of intellectual and introspective dialogue. There isn’t even any booze to be had — just a couple of cartons of vanilla ice cream if anyone’s interested. (They’re not.)
Malcolm gets his wish, the others begrudgingly engaging with him and each other on a range of topics, including, of course, racial inequality. Essentially, he wants the other three to think more about what they can do as individuals to further the cause of Black people in America.
The majority of the tension is shared by Malcolm and Sam, the latter becoming highly agitated at one point when the former plays Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” on a record player and challenges him as to why he apparently hasn’t tried to write a song as important to the cause as this white man from Minnesota has.
However, Malcolm and Jim soon share a quiet but powerful conversation alone about whether Jim and the other two should be used as “weapons” in Malcolm’s war.
Starting with “Hamilton” star Odom — who gets a few chances to show off his sublime pipes — the four lead roles are very well-cast. Hodge (“Straight Outta Compton,” “The Invisible Man”) has the physicality and quiet intensity needed for Jim, while Ben-Adir — who made a mark on the second season of Netflix cult fave “The OA” — is skillfully understated as Malcolm. Lastly, the performance of Goree (“Pearson,” “Riverdale”) is a small notch below that of his co-stars, but he does a convincing imitation of Clay’s show-boating public persona near the film’s end.
Although King is best known for her generally outstanding work in front of the camera in film (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) and television (“Watchmen”), she has directed episodes of “This Is Us,” “Insecure” and “Shameless,” as well as 2018 telefilm “The Finest.”
Here, she seems determined to keep the film from feeling too much like a play. Although somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 percent of “One Night in Miami” takes place in one setting, the motel suite, King and director of photography Tami Reiker use both a great deal of camera movements and constant cuts, seemingly to fend off a loss of energy. It can be a little distracting, and simpler approach may have given these talented performers a larger palette with which to paint, but the choice is understandable. (If you’re looking for that stage-on-the-screen feel, be sure to check out recent Netflix offerings “The Boy’s in the Band” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”)
As he surely did for live-theater audiences, Kemp (co-director and -writer of recent Pixar/Disney+ feature film “Soul”) gives us plenty on which to chew with his screenplay. It certainly shouldn’t be surprising to hear that while this tale takes place more than 45 years ago, the issues it tackles remain all too relevant today.
Yes, the film feels just a little short of its potential in this almost-intangible way, but, assuming you do not have a jammed social calendar right now, you really should watch it.
“One Night in Miami” is rated R for language throughout. Runtime: 1 hour, 54 minutes.