There’s a moment fairly early on in “One Night in Miami” in which the great soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) learns that the wild hotel room bash he was looking forward to is actually going to be four guys sitting around discussing the Black struggle — and his face just about falls through the floor. This is the man who wrote “We’re Having a Party,” for pity’s sakes! The scene gets a laugh but the audience might share his concern, especially if they know that the movie, which arrives on Amazon this week, is based on a play. Is this thing going to be all talk?
For the most part, yes, but what talk, and what characters, and what performances! “One Night In Miami” starts with the nugget of fact that Cooke, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and football great Jim Brown were all in town the night of Feb. 25, 1964, when Ali — still going by Cassius Clay and days from announcing his joining the Nation of Islam — beat Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight championship. The movie tumbles that nugget into dramatic gold: four men at the top of their fields, at the peaks of their fame, in a country still dedicated to their people’s destruction and arguing about what to do about it.
Everyone’s playing for keeps here. The dialogue by Kemp Powers — he co-wrote the script for the current Pixar release “Soul,” too — is rooted in rich, idiosyncratic human portraiture while keeping its eye on the prize of individual responsibility, on what these men might or might not owe the events then playing out in the streets of Birmingham, Montgomery, and elsewhere. The direction by Regina King, an Oscar-winning actress (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) who moves confidently into helming major features after honing her chops on TV shows, is smart and spry. She aces the crowd scenes early on and keeps the ensuing clash of personalities moving with fiery wit. As a filmmaker, she is a natural, and if “One Night in Miami” rarely leaves that hotel room, it never feels less than a movie.
At the screen’s center stage is a quartet of actors who uncannily bring four household names to life, along with the personal dilemmas with which each man is wrestling. One of the subtler jokes of “One Night in Miami” is that Malcolm X, played by British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir, is the earnest nerd of the bunch, hoping to sit his friends down for an evening of vanilla ice cream and righteous discourse while the others are hankering for booze and babes. Malcolm’s the class buzzkill, but Ben-Adir gives him a warmth and a passion that let him hold the moral high ground.
Clay (Eli Goree) is his willing pupil and ready to go public; what he doesn’t yet know is that Malcolm is ready to make his own break with the Nation after speaking out about Elijah Muhammad’s personal corruption and having his house fire-bombed in response. Goree’s Cassius Clay is the kid in the room, 22 years old and swaggering with glory after sending Liston down in the sixth; the film understands that his cockiness is earned, a defense mechanism, and a political statement all in one.
That makes Cooke and Brown (Aldis Hodge) the non-believers, the brothers in it to get some for themselves, Cooke by wresting control of his career from white record executives and Brown by leaving football for movie stardom. Of the two, Cooke is the more strenuous about arguing Malcolm down, in part because he’s the most defensive; the singer already has his civil rights anthem, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” in his back pocket but hasn’t yet worked up the nerve to record it. (In actuality, the song was already the lead-off track on the singer’s new album and Cooke had performed it on “The Tonight Show” three weeks before the fight.)
Odom Jr., whose Aaron Burr in “Hamilton” catapulted the actor to stage and recording stardom, has the showiest turn in “One Night in Miami” — in part because Malcolm’s so good at getting under Cooke’s skin — and he’s delicious fun to watch while remaining entirely serious. Odom Jr. also nails Cooke’s singing voice — no easy feat — and he gets the movie’s most electrifying flashback, to a Boston performance of “Chain Gang” that director King orchestrates as a thrilling fusion of pop and politics.
Odom Jr. and Ben-Adir earned most of the critical acclaim during the film’s festival run this fall, and not undeservedly. I still found myself drawn to the quiet, simmering mountain in the corner: Jim Brown as played with sage gravity by Hodge, so superb as the death-row prisoner in last year’s “Clemency.” An early sequence has shown us an interaction between the Cleveland Browns player, already a legend at 28 and a white patriarch (Beau Bridges) in Brown’s Georgia hometown that goes in surprising and then shocking directions. Of the four men, Brown keeps his own counsel and seems the most aware of the relationship between Black celebrity and Black Power — what you get to take and what’s on you to give back. He’s this movie’s anchor.
For all the high spirits and crackling dialogue, a bass note of sorrow runs beneath “One Night in Miami,” along with an overtone of paranoia. Two of these men will be shot dead within a year, and the wariness with which Malcolm’s bow-tied chief bodyguard (an excellent Lance Reddick) watches his every move carries as much threat as comfort. Two months from this night, the FBI would start ramping up its surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King Jr., a subject covered in the excellent new documentary, “MLK/FBI,” also debuting on streaming platforms this week.
Malcolm is right to sense menace on the wind, and right to be working with a journalist named Alex Haley on what will become his autobiography. To be successful and Black in America, this movie says, is to tell your own story even as you live it, in the pages of a book or the grooves of a record, in the end zone of a football field or the battleground of a boxing ring. To understand the weight and importance of having to be an example. And to understand when being an example just isn’t enough.
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI
Directed by Regina King. Written by Kemp Powers, based on his play. Starring Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr. On Amazon. 114 minutes. R (language throughout).