It’s all about the screenplay.
So often, the one element which hurts a movie the most is its screenplay. Generally speaking, bad screenplay, bad movie. Likewise, if your movie has a good screenplay, chances are, you have a winner on your hands.
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI (2021), now available on Prime Video, not only has a good screenplay, it has a phenomenal one! Written by Kemp Powers, based on his stage play of the same name, ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI tells the fictional account of four icons, Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.) getting together in a hotel room in Miami to celebrate Ali’s victory over Sonny Liston for the Heavyweight Title earlier that night, and the ensuing conversations between them as they navigate through Malcolm X’s views on race relations, and their own roles in the movement make for superior storytelling from start to finish.
When he defeated Liston that night for the Heavyweight Title, Ali was still known as Cassius Clay, but under the guidance of his friend and mentor Malcolm X, Clay had been considering converting to Islam. In fact, this get-together from Malcolm X’s perspective, was largely to finalize that conversion, and to tell their two other friends, Cooke and Brown, about it.
On this night, Malcolm X is on edge. He knows people are following him, that there are threats against his life, and he is having conflicts within the ranks of the Nation of Islam, but more so, he feels the struggle for the black man is imminent, and there is no time to slack off and accept the status quo. And so, in addition to his invitation to Clay, he also leans heavily into Sam Cooke, a singer Malcolm X accuses of cozying up too much to white society. Cooke does not take kindly to this criticism, and most of the night the two friends engage in heated exchanges.
Meanwhile, Jim Brown, the NFL’s biggest star, does not agree with Malcolm X’s militant stance on race, and yet he knows huge problems exist in the country. He just doesn’t agree with Malcolm’s solutions. And Cassius Clay, while originally enthustiastic about becoming a Muslim, has ever increasing doubts as the heated arguments continue throughout the evening.
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI is chock full of memorable lines and conversations. It’s pratically a treatise on race relations, and even though the story takes place in 1964 and is seen through the eyes of four icons of the that period, the conversations remain relevant in the here and now. And it’s done on a canvas of a marvelous play. The dialogue, the relationships, the characters, they all come to life, and thanks to director Regina King, who invites the audience right into the room with these guys, you feel like you’re right there sitting next to them.
One of the more memorable lines comes as Jim Brown is shaking his head at Malcolm X and telling him it always amazes him that Malcom so freely mixes being religious with being militant, to which Malcolm replies, “what’s the difference?”
Nearly every conversation is a memorable exchange. From Malcolm X pointing out that Bob Dylan, a white man, has written songs more pointed towards their cause than anything Cooke has written, to Cooke’s lambasting Malcolm over his comments following JFK’s assassination, telling Malcolm “my mother cried when JFK died. So did I. I liked JFK.”
Eli Goree delivers the most fun performance in the movie as Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali. He captures Clay’s exhuberance and over-the-top personality, and enjoys many scene stealing moments, like when he’s bragging he doesn’t have a scratch on his face and looks in the mirror, stopping abruptly and going silent as if concerned. When his three friends rush to his aid, he says, “How is it that I’m so handsome!” It’s one of the better performances of Clay/Ali that I’ve ever seen.
Kingsley Ben–Adir makes for an intense, introspective, driven, and visibly frightened Malcolm X. His scenes of harsh criticism of his friends are juxtaposed with his late night phone calls to his wife and daughters, revealing him as a loving, caring family man. And while his friends push back, he desperately tries to tell them that he’s not criticizing them, but trying to motivate them to help their cause.
Aldis Hodge plays Jim Brown as the most level headed of the group, in that he’s the least interested in Malcolm’s cause and simply believes that the way to achieve equality is through economic means, and each of them by their own successes are already doing that. Malcolm disagrees and says that is not enough. For Brown, he knows things are bad, he’s experienced things first-hand, but he just doesn’t see the answer as coming through militant means. Hodge is very good in the role, as he’s been in a bunch of other movies, including THE INVISIBLE MAN (2019), BRIAN BANKS (2018), and HIDDEN FIGURES (2019).
Leslie Odom, Jr. plays Sam Cooke and partakes in the film’s most fiery scenes, as Cooke is constantly at odds with Malcolm X. And the reason Cooke takes Malcolm’s criticisms so seriously is because he believes he has been doing these things, he has been making strides for race relations, and so he is irked by Malcolm’s statements to the contrary. He recounts the story of how a song he wrote and another black artist recorded reached #49 on the charts, and when a British band called the Rolling Stones asked for permission to do a cover version of the song, he said yes. He says Malcolm would have said no because they were white, but Cooke said yes, and the Rolling Stones version went to #1 on the pops chart. And since Cooke owned the royalties, both he and the black singer collected huge checks, and with that kind of money, that is how Cooke says he is a making a difference.
It’s an excellent performance by Odom, known mostly these days for his performance as Aaron Burr in the musical Hamilton, as well as in the movie version, HAMILTON (2020).
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI is actress’ Regina King’s directorial debut, and it’s a powerful one. She captures the look and feel of the period with ease. Everything about this movie looks authentic. And she is able to weave in and out of the various conversations and arguments without ever losing any momentum. In spite of the fact that this one is driven by dialogue, it is cinematic in scope and does not feel like a simple stage play.
It’s captivating from start to finish, and there isn’t a dull moment in any of its two hour running time.
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI is pretty much flawless. Add this one to your queue immediately. It’s the best movie I’ve seen in a long time.