Updated: Aug 5, 2021
One Night in Miami theorizes what happened when four famous men got together in a small hotel room after the World Heavyweight boxing championship. Instead of partying like crazy, they got into serious discussions about racism in America. One of the men, Cassius Clay, planned to upend expectations by announcing a change of faith and name. Under leadership and guidance by another guy in the room—Malcolm X—Clay aimed towards a different role as Mohammed Ali, the newly crowned Heavyweight Champion of the World. Malcolm hoped the two other men in the room—football player Jim Brown and singer Sam Cooke—would join the movement and use their influence to forcefully demand racial parity.
The four really spent one night in Miami on February 25, 1964. No one recorded the conversation, so writer Kemp Powers theorized what the men said for his play, first performed on stage in 2013. Talky by nature, the play nonetheless features cinematic allure—to quote the play Hamilton which also imagines part of history—One Night in Miami reflects the allure of being in “the room where it happened.” That attraction increases with the involvement of famous and talented people, and One Night gets another Hamilton connection by casting Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke. Odom’s singing skills as Aaron Burr in Hamilton transfer elegantly to Cooke, whose song “You Send Me” still plays the airwaves.
Music gives director Regina King the opportunity to make her project feel more cinematic. Cutting from talk to song breaks up a sense of grandstanding speeches that often make the transition from play to film feel stagey. King moves some action away from the room where it happened, opening up the play in a natural fashion.
Yet dialogue dominates—as it should. What the men say reflected important insights for their time almost sixty years ago, and sadly, still apply in today’s world. With fine acting, clear direction, and perceptive relevance, One Night in Miami transforms from a strong play into powerful cinema.The movie opened in theaters January 8 and started streaming on Amazon January 15.