Hard Knocks

As the Civil Rights movement heats up, four black icons enter the ring

Film  by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

One Night in Miami…
Prime Video
Opens Jan. 15

Regina King is having a moment. Following her winning turns as an actor in If Beale Street Could Talk and the miniseries Watchman, she demonstrates her talent behind the camera with her feature-length debut as a director.

One Night in Miami… imagines the evening following Cassius Clay’s pummelling of Sonny Liston in February 1964. The newly crowned heavyweight champ, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown — all four at crossroads in their lives — celebrate The Greatist’s triumph by debating their contribution to the Civil Rights movement and getting in each other’s kitchens.

Clay is about to change his name to Muhammad Ali, while the pragmatic Brown is considering hanging up the football cleats and becoming an actor. Unsurprisingly, the focus tilts towards Malcolm X, whose self-righteousness gets the best of him. The reverend is especially harsh on Cooke and his radio-friendly brand of R&B, arguing that his gift is wasted in catering to white audiences. Cooke’s Civil Rights anthem “A Change is Gonna Come” was issued as a single the following December — posthumously.

One Night in Miami… can’t escape its stagey nature (it’s based on a play by Soul’s  Kemp Powers, who also did the screenplay). But the exchanges between the four legends are fascinating, and frequently electric. The film offers a comprehensive, textured view of the discrimination and oppression experienced by African-Americans — some of which persists to this day, to everyone’s shame.

Well-rounded performances across the board make the film an awards season contender. More importantly, it brings four up-and-comers to the forefront: Leslie Odom Jr (Cooke), Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X), Aldis Hodge (Brown) and Eli Goree (Clay).  Ben-Adir is the MVP, with Odom nipping at his heels. But all have charisma to spare.

Outside of the nicely staged fight between Clay and Liston at the beginning, a couple of flashbacks, and the finale, One Night in Miami… is a chamber piece. I would’ve liked to see something more cinematic than a motel room. But it’s very much worth your time.