What kind of a party planner was Malcolm X?
This is one of many questions raised and answered in Regina King’s directorial debut, “One Night in Miami.” The Amazon Studios drama, adapted for the screen by playwright Kemp Powers, features sizzling wit, towering political debate and sobering realities in the lives of four Black icons brought together Feb. 25, 1964.
On its face, “One Night in Miami” is a historical drama about Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) becoming the world heavyweight champion, converting to Islam and transforming into “Muhammad Ali.” This is all part of the story King sets out to tell, but the narrative detaches from Clay somewhere in the second act and turns instead to a more engaging central conflict: Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and his efforts to convert Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) into a civil rights activist.
This refocusing is the first of many directorial choices that make King a vibrant and engaging storyteller. Her style is punctuated by calculated risks that are as audacious as their payoffs. It was a risk for King to stay true to Powers’ original play and shoot the majority of the film in a hotel room — a setting with considerably limited spatial possibilities. It was a risk to switch between protagonists, creating a hierarchy of narrative attention. Most of all, it was a risk to center so much of the film around Odom’s ability to authentically deliver the musical stylings of Sam Cooke, a towering figure in the American music industry, remembered and revered to this day as the “King of Soul.”
In terms of setting, King looked back at the script’s previous life on the stage for the little theatrical flourishes that bring the hotel room to life. King takes what could have been a static setting and electrifies it with objects of drama and conflict such as alcohol smuggled in a guitar case and potentially wiretapped lampshades.
The second obstacle is overcome by the brilliant performances of the four leading actors. Goree’s portrayal of Cassius Clay is humorous, unselfconscious and deeply likable. Odom Jr. delivers a strong Sam Cooke, rising admirably to the vocal challenge the role demanded. Aldis Hodge’s Jim Brown might appear less fleshed-out than the other characters, but he serves as a spectacular foil: playful beside an austere Malcolm X, cool around an enraged Cassius Clay and composed — suave, even — next to an eccentric Sam Cooke.
The most staggering performance is delivered by Ben-Adir. His portrayal of Malcolm X will inevitably be compared with that of Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” In addition to the conviction, eloquence and charisma that one expects from a portrayal of Malcolm X, Ben-Adir offers austerity, paternal care, sensitivity, earnestness and most of all the deeply hopeful part of the man that was rarely covered by the national media.
The film follows four main characters, but Ben-Adir’s sensational acting centers Malcolm from beginning to end. The film ends with Malcolm working on his autobiography in a hotel while Cooke sings “A Change is Gonna Come” on national television. In this way, Powers and King introduce two key documents of the civil rights era into the narrative, creating a conceptually appealing elliptical effect in which the film becomes the progenitor of its own source texts.
Odom’s singing could not be more commendable. His rendition of Cooke’s vocal, lyrical and orchestral masterpiece comes at the very apex of the film and is a deeply moving tribute. In the world of the film, it also acts as an elegy for Malcolm X, who was assassinated Feb. 21, 1965.
This elegiac function of the song is curious because it is just as applicable to Cooke as it is to Malcolm X. Cooke was killed Dec. 11, 1964 — the same month “A Change Is Gonna Come” was released as a single — but this is not acknowledged in the film. It is a thought-provoking omission, the only raised eyebrow in what is otherwise a directorial triumph.
“One Night in Miami” is a spectacular debut for King and should put her, Powers and Ben-Adir on track for further triumph at the 93rd Academy Awards.
Contact Blue Fay at [email protected].