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"One Night in Miami" finds the humanity inside four 1960s supermen

Starring Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Joaquina Kalukango, Michael Imperioli, Jerome A. Wilson, Beau Bridges and Aaron D. Alexander. Directed by Regina King. Screening on Amazon Prime Video. 114 minutes. STC


Peter Howell

Movie Critic

Four Black icons from the worlds of sports, music and revolutionary politics are in the spotlight in “One Night in Miami,” a speculative drama that marks the stellar feature directing debut of Oscar winner Regina King.

It’s set the evening of Feb. 25, 1964, when 22-year-old boxer Cassius Clay (Canada’s Eli Goree), soon to be known as Muhammad Ali, becomes the world heavyweight champion with a surprise win over reigning champ Sonny Liston, in a title bout at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

At the city’s Hampton House Motel, a haven for Black travellers, Cassius is celebrating the win with three well-known friends and verbal sparring partners: pop crooner Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr. of “Hamilton”), NFL football great Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Nation of Islam crusader Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir).

Screenwriter Kemp Powers adapts the story from his one-act stage play of the same name. It’s based on social and geographical fact — these four men were indeed friends and they did gather on this occasion — but their dialogue is powerfully imagined and brilliantly acted, honouring the past while speaking truth to the present.

The four young men are all on the cusp of major life changes: Cassius, mentored by Malcolm, is planning to become a Muslim and join the Nation of Islam, a religious movement that inspires Blacks while terrifying whites; Sam is attempting to expand his pop soul sound to reach a broader (read: whiter) audience; Jim aspires to trade football touchdowns for movie stardom; and Malcolm is struggling to define his roles as a Nation of Islam minister and as a husband and father.

The film opens not with flashback scenes of glory but something more like defeat. Cassius is on the ropes in a pre-Liston bout, his big mouth (“I’m the greatest!”) having gotten ahead of his fists. Sam is bombing in his debut at the Copacabana nightclub, with many members of his older white audience walking out on him. Jim is discovering that NFL stardom doesn’t shield him from racial slurs as he visits a family friend (Beau Bridges) on a Georgia plantation.

And then there’s Malcolm, a man older than his years in a conservative black suit and serious Browline spectacles, who is trying to explain to his worried wife, Betty (Joaquina Kalukango), what his future is with the Nation of Islam, and how his incendiary politics might affect them and their two young children. He fears he has enemies not only outside his group, but also inside, as he preaches for a “more righteous version of Islam.”

Malcolm’s revolutionary intentions and sharp tongue have an outsized impact on the drab motel room gathering of the four famous friends, who are watched over by two Nation of Islam bodyguards.

Cassius, played with much charm and grace by Goree (TV’s “Riverdale”), is looking for assurances from Malcolm that he’s doing the right thing by converting. Sam and Jim just want to drink and carouse, all the more so if beautiful women are nearby.

But uptight Malcolm wants prayerful commitment from Cassius, not equivocation, and he won’t tolerate drinking or womanizing — he’s supplied vanilla ice cream instead of liquor for refreshments.

He’s got a bone to pick with Sam and Jim. He considers both to be sellouts, pandering to a dominant white culture that doesn’t respect them while failing to set a good example for Blacks.

“Y’all pulled out the knives!” Jim complains, as the bantering suddenly sharpens.

Malcolm is particularly tough on Sam, mocking his recent hits “You Send Me” and “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” as lightweight drivel.

He drops the needle on a Bob Dylan album, playing Dylan’s protest anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind” to show how a humble white man has more empathy for downtrodden people than Sam “Mr. Soul” Cooke, who favours flashy suits and fast sports cars. (Irony alert: Dylan borrowed the melody of “Blowin’ in the Wind” from an African-African spiritual song, “No More Auction Block.”)

Sam gives back as good as he gets, telling Malcolm that he’s also a producer as well as a musician, helping other Black singers get songwriting fees from groups like the Rolling Stones. And Sam criticizes Malcolm for needlessly inflaming people, as when the Nation of Islam firebrand referred to the assassination of JFK as “chickens coming home to roost.”

There’s a risk that a superstar confrontation like this will devolve into a talky exchange of slogans, especially given the story’s stage origins and the famous/infamous personalities of the main players.

King overcomes the celebrity claustrophobia by frequently taking the action and camera outside, including a visit to the motel rooftop where the quarrelsome quartet reflects on issues big and small — including shutterbug Malcolm’s love of German-made cameras, which seems like a hypocritical indulgence for a man so abstemious.

King has an eye and ear not always found in rookie directors, no doubt aided by her long experience as an actor, including her Oscar-winning role as mother of a wrongfully convicted man in Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

Production designer Barry Robison assists King in making the most of what was likely not a huge budget to convincingly place the characters and action in multiple mid-1960s surroundings. Composer Terence Blanchard contributes a keyboard-rich jazz score.

It seems almost unfair to single out one actor from the superb lead foursome, but British actor Ben-Adir is first among equals within this larger-than-life crew.

Demonstrating his range as an actor — last year he played the mellow President Barack Obama in the TV miniseries “The Comey Rule” — he brings Malcolm X out of faded headlines and old B&W newsreels and shows how and why an otherwise mild-mannered minister and father could boil with rage over racial and social inequities.

We see the men inside the supermen in “One Night in Miami,” all the more so in Ben-Adir’s intensely conflicted Malcolm X.

(This review originally ran in the Toronto Star.)

Twitter: @peterhowellfilm


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