Cassius Clay had just been crowned the new heavyweight boxing champion of the world by unexpectedly beating Sonny Liston in Miami. After the fight, Clay celebrated his victory at the spartan Hampton House motel where his close friend and mentor, the Nation of Islam activist Malcolm X, was booked. Joining them this night of February 25, 1964, were two other friends — popular rock and roll singer Sam Cooke and football hero Jim Brown.
The four actors playing these four lead characters formed a formidable acting ensemble, which probably made director Regina King’s job a dream come true. “One Night in Miami” was a talky film, with hardly any action aside from those two fights in the boxing ring in the first 30 minutes. It depended heavily on the performances of the four main actors to bring the script to vital life and they all nailed their parts perfectly. There was electric chemistry between the four, like they had long been best friends for real.
Eli Goree had Cassius Clay’s famous brash bravado down pat both in and out of the ring. He also displayed his inner naivete when it came to his planned transition into Islam. Tony-winning “Hamilton” star Leslie Odom Jr. had the silky voice of Sam Cooke. His impassioned performance of “A Change is Gonna Come” alone was already worth an Oscar award. Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown was the most subdued of the four, but his first scene with Beau Bridges 10 minutes in was the most shocking and painful.
British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir had the most sensitive and complex portrayal. Of the four, he had the most hard-hitting comments about how his friends were using their celebrity status in light of the African-American experience of that day. He believed that being famous, they should actively fight for the rights of their fellow blacks from their respective areas of influence. He was not averse to ruffle feathers to express his mind even among his friends, making for some highly tense situations.
Kemp Powers conjured up the fictional discussions of four African-American icons in his 2013 play, which he adapted himself into this screenplay. All four men were successful and influential in their own fields, yet were all still victims of the racial segregation which oppressed African-Americans that time. Kemp skillfully made each man debate civil rights issues from their respective careers and experiences in life, making for lively, heated and thought-provoking conversations.
This review was originally published in the author’s blog, “Fred Said.”