“One Night in Miami” is the rarest of movies — one that deals with how we decide to align ourselves with political and artistic works of conscience.
Kemp Powers adapted his stage play for the screen in cooperation with Regina King, the Oscar -winning actress who’s making her directorial debut.
And they have assembled a dream cast: Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcom X, Eli Goree as Cassius Clay, Aldis Hodge as NFL football great Jim Brown and Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke.
Most of the film takes place in a motel room in the predominantly black Over-town neighborhood of Miami, where the four famous Black men gathered in 1964 after Clay defeated Sonny Liston in 1964 in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history.
And, yes, the four icons actually did gather at a motel after Clay’s victory, although a historical record of that evening is unavailable. As a screenwriter, Powers tries to get inside the heads of these men on what must have been a momentous evening, especially considering what happened to all four afterward.
Clay was debating whether to join the Nation of Islam, which he eventually did, taking the name Muhammad Ali. And Malcolm X was the deciding factor, offering spiritual guidance to the brash boxing star with an otherworldly bravado.
Malcolm X was at a turning point, too. He was hoping that converting Clay to Islam would bolster his chances to break with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.
Brown, meanwhile, is at a turning point, debating whether to leave the Cleveland Browns and become a full-time actor.
And Cooke is struggling with the age-old question of whether artists have a social responsibility, especially a Black singer in the 1960s, as the Civil Rights movement was spreading across the United States.
Each actor has to sort through these questions throughout “One Night in Miami.” And there’s no doubt that Ben-Adir as Malcolm X is driving the debate, coaxing Clay, questioning Brown and trying to persuade Cooke to compose songs with politically responsible meaning.
Each actor, however, has thrilling moments, and it turns out to be a fine ensemble work.
As Malcolm, Ben-Adir, a British actor, embodies the public persona of Malcom X, but also shows a softer, more friendly side when in the relative safety of a motel room with friends.
As Clay, Goree offers much-needed laughter, as he struts up to a mirror and exclaims how pretty he is. Most viewers probably know Goree as boxer Munroe “Mad Dog” Moore on the TV series “Riverdale.”
Odom, who rose to stardom for his Tony-winning role as Aaron Burr in Broadway’s “Hamilton,” is probably assured an Oscar nomination. His performance of Cooke’s classic civil rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come” near the end of the movie will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
Hodge, who plays football star Brown, has a less showy role, but he brings a solidity and seriousness that has sometimes been under-appreciated in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. To prepare for the role, Hodge says he repeatedly watched an appearance by Brown on “The Dick Cavett Show,” which also included well-known segregationist Lester Maddox as a guest.
“They’re having this interview where Jim is going back and forth on bullet points about cultural issues,” Hodge says in press materials provided to critics. “The way he maintains his candor as Maddox gets angrier and angrier is just so smooth and so cool. He just shut Lester down with his eloquence, cool temperament and intelligence to the point where Lester got so mad, he stormed off the stage.”
It would be an oversight to write a review of “Miami” and not mention the work of six-time Grammy-winning composer Terence Blanchard, who uses just a piano for much of the score. But in a prayer scene with Malcolm, Blanchard introduces the duduk, a Middle Eastern wind instrument, which is used in other key spots during the film. Blanchard is the Endowed Chair in Jazz Studies at the University of California in Los Angeles.
But ultimately, the greatest honors for “Miami” fall upon screenwriter Powers and director King. Their efforts to show the inner lives of Black men at a pivotal moment in U.S. history deserve lots of praise. The script is thrilling. The direction Is flawless. And “One Night in Miami” should start stacking up nominations during the upcoming awards season.
“One Night in Miami” is playing at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin. For showtimes and locations, visit www.drafthouse.com. It is also streaming on Amazon Prime, starting Friday Jan. 15.