Most people remember February 25th in 1964 as the day Cassius Clay unexpectedly defeated Sonny Liston and became the heavyweight boxing champion of the world but there was another event that happened that night. One that has intrigued people for decades. Four significant figures of the Civil Rights era, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Malcolm X, gathered in a room at the Hampton House Hotel to celebrate Clay’s victory. No one knows what actually happened in that hotel room (except Jim Brown, of course) but the next day, Cassius Clay declared that he will be joining the Nation of Islam.
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One Night In Miami gives a “What If” glimpse into the conversations that could’ve taken place in that room. Directed by Regina King, the film focuses on revealing the flawed human beings behind the four icon’s public image. It was a pivotal moment of change in each of the celebrity’ lives and King accounts for this in each scene of the film. King makes it clear that these larger than life icons, who have accomplished so much, are at the top of the world and they’ve barely gotten started.
The film was adapted from an award-winning stage play of the same name created by Kemp Powers (writer and director of Soul). King decides to keep the minimalist, dialogue centric style from the play and utilizes it to create an enthralling experience. By the end of the film, you will be disappointed that it has to end.
The film begins by introducing us to our 4 main characters as they head to Miami for the Heavyweight Boxing Championship. We see Cassius Clay preparing for his matchup against Sonny Liston, Sam Cooke performing for a tough all-white audience, Jim Brown driving to Miami to commentate the Boxing Championship, and Malcolm X as his relationship deteriorates with the leadership of the NOI. Malcolm X’s conflict with the NOI drives the plot and after Cassius Clay becomes the Heavyweight Champion of The World, he plans a celebratory gathering in a hotel room with his 3 friends, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, and Cassius Clay.
Clay, Cooke, Brown, and Malcolm arrive at the hotel room and even though Malcolm claimed this would be a celebratory gathering, they all realize this is more of a reflective gathering. Reflective of the different roles involved in the path to racial equality. Quickly, we learn of the different character dynamics that make up the friend group.
Sam Cooke, who regularly entertains white audiences, and Malcolm X, who spends his days chastising the mistreatment of black people, mixed like oil and water. Whereas Malcolm X takes a blunt approach, Sam Cooke is indirect about tackling racial inequality. The two spent most of their time at odds about their different approaches to battling racial inequality.
Malcolm X and Cassius Clay have a different relationship. One that mirrors a mentor and mentee. Malcolm convinces Clay to join the Nation of Islam and Clay plans to announce it soon after his big win. Malcolm, however, has not told Clay that his relationship with the NOI is on the verge of disintegration and that his plan is to leave the NOI, create a new group, and convince Cassius to lead followers into this group. Eventually, tensions come to a head and Malcolm is forced into a moment of vulnerability to salvage his relationships.
The film starts off with crucial moments in each character’s life without exposition or background. It has a strong beginning that sets the momentum for the rest of the film. Films tend to have issues maintaining interest with so few locations and characters but King does an excellent job keeping each scene and interaction engaging. Although, it is welcomed when new elements are introduced into the film.
Cast and Characters
Being in a hotel room with 3 of your best friends is not a public moment, it’s private. The actors had the task of capturing the public personality of these icons and also the private personality they only show to the people close to them. Kingsley Ben-Adir had the toughest role of all but creates plenty of memorable moments as Malcolm X. You can identify this is a crucial moment in Malcolm’s life just by the urgency in Ben-Adir’s words.
Eli Goree captures the endearingly boastful spirit of Cassius Clay and his young naivete. Aldis Hodge plays Jim Brown and captures his direct but nuanced persona. Hodge’s lowkey performance made him the peacekeeper of the group. Lastly, Leslie Odom Jr. portrays Sam Cooke with all of the talent and majesty he had in Hamilton. In each of Odom’s scenes, the internal struggle between what Malcolm beckons Cooke to do and what Cooke believes he is doing is apparent, ultimately ending in a decisive change.
The performances of each of the 4 main actors were stellar. They each captured the image of the icons we all know and added authenticity that brought those larger than life icons down to our level. They are just human after all.
Should I Watch it - Yes!
When I learned that this film would include Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke, I knew this film would end with one of the greatest songs of all time, “A Change Is Gonna Come”. I even assumed there would be a bittersweet montage to accompany it. I was not disappointed and the emotional beats hit all the same because outside of watching some of the most important icons hang with each other like your average joe, the excellent writing, directing, and riveting performances created an experience that was truly extraordinary.
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