We’ve all heard that old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover.
The same might be said of movies and movie titles.
The title One Night in Miami (2020) didn’t really grab me when I first saw it in print. Hate to say it, but it sounded like another one of the numerous comedies about a night of R-Rated antics fueled by too much alcohol and illegal substances.
That was my fault.
When I saw the trailers and eventually saw the movie, I was aware of how colossally wrong I was. Lesson learned.
The one night in Miami that the title refers to is a remarkable night that actually took place, following 22-year-old Cassius Clay’s stunning defeat of Sonny Liston.
The night was February 25, 1964. On that glorious night, Cassius Clay became the heavyweight champion of the world.
Even more remarkable was the fact that Clay (played by Eli Goree) spent the remainder of that evening, not being surrounded by sports writers or adoring fans, but simply, unceremoniously hanging out with three of his friends in a segregated hotel.
They included Black activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), football star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and legendary soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.). That much is apparently true.
While we may never know the details of what transpired that night, the remarkable circumstance became the basis of a play, and later a screenplay, by Kemp Powers who infused it with magnificent dialog that resonates with probing truth and insight in these troubled times, so many years later.
It’s one of the best screenplays of 2020, hands down, brought to the screen under the competent direction of Regina King who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2019 for the film If Beale Street Could Talk.
One Night in Miami marks her feature film directorial debut.
As James Brown once sang, it was a man’s world back in the mid-Sixties, particularly in the Black community, where it was a struggle even for talented, ambitious black men who would later rise to become cultural icons.
The film opens with four, short prologue sequences showing that struggle for each of these men.
There are moments of humiliation and defeat for each of them that set the stage for what follows on that fateful night.
The turning point is the Clay-Liston fight which brings the four men together and sparks the exchange between them. The razor-sharp dialog reveals the plight they all faced in their struggle for recognition, power and freedom in a world of oppression and racial hatred.
It’s a snapshot of that chapter of our history, a long chapter of American history that we are sadly still experiencing.
That sobering truth is what makes One Night in Miami so powerful and resoundingly relevant.
Add to that the stellar performances of the actors portraying the four main characters and you have a movie for the times.
Each of them brings powerhouse talent to their roles, capturing not only their uncanny physical resemblance to the characters they play, but the nuances of the personalities and inner spirit as well.
Will Smith played Muhammad Ali in the movie Ali (2001). Denzel Washington portrayed Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992). They were noteworthy performances. But the portrayals of these characters here are equally strong and arguably even superior.
I’m speaking of the casting of Eli Goree as Cassius Clay and his incredible talent in channeling the mannerisms, facial expressions, and vocal nuances that we know so well.
As mentioned, he looks the part in terms of a heavyweight’s physique. He owns it.
(I had the chance to meet Muhammad Ali several years ago.)
Leslie Odom, Jr. brings Sam Cooke to life by singing and performing Cooke’s legendary, signature songs without reliance on lip-syncing. He even plays guitar, a seldom-seen detail that guitar players can spot in a minute. It’s the kind of standout performance that you’d expect from the man who portrayed Aaron Burr in the musical Hamilton.
Everything about One Night in Miami is exceptional.
Its only minor flaws are occasional errors in screen direction that sometimes pop up in a director’s first feature film. But that can be excused in light of everything that is right about this movie.
I’m not sure what a better title might have been for One Night in Miami.
Maybe there isn’t a more fitting title that could have encapsulated the utterly astonishing and seemingly unlikely connection of these four remarkable men on the night of an event that would change their lives and history in general.
We might never know exactly what transpired or what was said. But the fact they actually met that incredible night thankfully provided the spark that eventually ignited both stage and screen with this remarkable story.
One that is well worth seeing.
One Night in Miami is in theaters now and on Amazon Prime Video.