History comes to life in Regina Kings’ One Night in Miami, the story of the night Malclom X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Sam Cook met in a hotel room. Filling in the blanks of a true but forever mysterious story, screenwriter Kemp Powers resists the urge to present great men as perfect people. Reminding us of their differences and refusing all easy answers, Miami asserts Black history’s ongoing relevance.
One Night in Miami is basically about a party. Taking place on the night of boxer Cassius Clay’s (Eli Goree) historic win in Feb. 25, 1964, Black activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) throws a party for the new champ, inviting football player Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and musician Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.). But in an era where segregation was still being debated and where KKK attacks were common, every celebration is complex. The fun night evolves as the men debate the meaning and responsibility of black success.
Though Miami brings these icons together, the movie ticks when it reminds us of their differences. The film opens on Cassius Clay boxing to a booing crowd. An all white audience, they despise his every move. But in the ring, Clay is happy. Laughing with his managers as Terence Blanchard’s jaunty score plays, Clay loves what his audience hates: He’s winning. Like X and Brown, Clay success is not measured by public approval–this keeps the white gaze at bay. “As long as I keep winning, ain’t one….thing any racist…can do about it,” Brown says. But as a musician, Cooke must seduce his audience. Introduced playing the whites only Copacabana club, Cooke bombs before he even opens his mouth (and after). The difference is clear. Though each man struggles with white gatekeepers, Cooke’s job requires a certain amount of white approval. So it’s no surprise that from their earliest moments together, Cooke stands out. When X and Cooke see two white men following them around, X suspects the FBI is watching. Cooke assumes they’re his fans.
Today, Cooke’s portrayal might seem out of step. But, King’s willingness to praise and challenge each position gives this story its pulse. One of Miami’s best tensions– X’s constant critique of Cooke’s crossover appeal– might leave some unsatisfied. In the film and in real life, Cooke let the Rolling Stones cover “It’s All Over Now” a song originally released by The Valentinos, a black group signed to his label. After the Stones’ release, The Valentinos disappeared from the charts. But Cooke considers this a win. Because The Valentinos wrote the song, they ultimately made more money selling it than they did recording it. “White boys out there touring around,” Cook says, “they ain’t even know they working for us.” In Miami, these victories feel incomplete. Though Cooke is most vulnerable to the white gaze, he understands and profits from it. But if white artists determine how much money his music makes, does he truly have power?
Miami’s tendency towards tricky questions and unfinished debates makes it modern. For anyone today who’s spent time on Twitter debating whether Miley Cyrus’ rap career was culturally appropriative or Kanye West’s cancellation status, the discussions in Miami should feel familiar. But here, instead of using public figures as symbols in our debates, King lets us watch them grapple with their power and places in our lives–leaving us impressed and unsatisfied with the results. As Black history Month winds down, Miami reminds us that our history is still being written.
“One Night in Miami” is rated R. It is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.