Boxing is imbued in every fiber of One Night in Miami... Not exactly surprising for a film about the most famous boxer in history in the aftermath of one of his most famous fights, but the connection runs so much deeper. The entire film is structured like a classic Muhammad Ali fight, floating through it’s early introductions to draw you in all while sharpening into powerhouse confrontations that land with a sting.
One Night in Miami... is mostly a work of fiction, imagining the details of a very real meeting between Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir,) Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge,) Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.,) and — at the time — Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) following his historic upset of Sonny Liston in 1964. It’s a consequential moment for Clay, freshly minted the Heavyweight World Champion at just 22. He’s grappling with his place, not just as a boxer and burgeoning superstar, but as a voice in the movement for black liberation.
Each of his guests at the post match celebration has experienced the intertwining of fame and racism from a different perspective. Cooke and Brown, like Clay himself, built their reputations on immense talent and witnessed how that fame changed their perception by White America. For the two of them success as Black men is a powerful statement in and of itself and to be more vocal in the fight for racial equality would jeopardize that success. In an early moment, we see Brown, fresh off a record breaking NFL season lauded by a white man in his hometown, but when Brown offers to help move some furniture he’s told that he isn’t welcome in the house due to the color of his skin.
A world apart ideologically, Malcolm X gained notoriety for his militant activism and rhetoric. In his estimation his famous friends, especially Cooke, are not forcefully enough using their platforms to combat racial injustice. X hopes to recruit Clay to his way of thinking, enlisting the young pugilist to battle with his words as ferociously as his fists.
What results is a tug-of-war of sorts, one first time director Regina King physically manifests, often placing Clay directly between two cohorts sparring over his future. That use of space — at times to show the forces pulling at the new Champion, at others isolation of the various characters whose motives are being questioned — is the defining hallmark of One Night in Miami... King is herself militant behind the camera, composing each shot to accentuate the battles between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke. At one point, as Malcolm X is rhetorically cornered by his cohorts, he is physically banished to the corner of the room, a visual representation of his current position within the group.
Of course, in a piece as character focused as One Night in Miami..., the directorial flourishes would be nothing without grounded acting, and once again King delivers. She draws out stunning performances from each of her stars. Ben-Adir is stately and imposing as Malcolm X, while also showing an intimacy, an interior vulnerability, rarely seen in depictions of the civil rights icon. Odom Jr. Puts on full display not just his singing chops, which we’ve all come to know from Hamilton, but also the fiery rage of a man confronted over his commitment to his people and the price of his success. Hodge too is very good, if more reserved as Jim Brown and serves as a sort of moral center. Goree is perfect as Clay, reveling in the jubilation and cockiness of his milestone accomplishment but also clearly embodying the uncertainty of his youth, bending ever so slightly to the ideals of his entourage.
There is no single flashy moment of One Night in Miami... rather the film is a collection of meticulously crafted and acted bouts. It’s a movie of battles, between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston, between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke, even between each man’s own sense of personal desire and responsibility. Ultimately only that championship match, Muhammad Ali’s last as Cassius Clay, finished with the KO. For the rest, the battle of ideas went the full twelve rounds without decision, in many ways those are the fights that rage on today. 8/10