By Lynn Venhaus
A play-based drama imagines conversations between four black icons during a crucial time in the civil rights fight.
Playwright Kemp Powers adapted his 2013 stage play, “One Night in Miami,” which set their fictional meeting on Feb. 25, 1964, after Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) emerged as the new heavyweight boxing champion by defeating Sonny Liston at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
Joining him afterwards at the Hampton House Motel in the African American Overtown neighborhood is activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and legendary NFL running back Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge).
These influential black men discuss their responsibility and roles in the burgeoning civil rights movement.
On the cusp of the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, four famous black men feel pressured as symbols, trying to determine how to support equality and empower others through their celebrity.
The discussions are thought-provoking throughout, even though the film can’t quite shake its theatrical roots. But it’s the performances that galvanize “One Night in Miami.” One of the finest ensembles of the year features four young talents establishing their value, and each is riveting.
Kingsley Ben-Adir is fire and brimstone as Malcolm X, whose heated exchanges with Cooke do lead to a new direction for the singer, as shown later in “A Change Is Gonna Come” performed on “The Tonight Show.”
As the confident Malcolm X, Ben-Adir, however, expresses doubt and grapples with loyalty to the Nation of Islam.
Eli Goree, a veteran of TV’s “Ballers” and “Riverdale,”
nails the glibness and distinct cadence of Clay, who is mulling over his
decision to become Muhammad Ali.
Leslie Odom Jr., Tony winner as Aaron Burr in “Hamilton,” is electric as soul music pioneer Cooke, smoothly delivering several hits. A flashback to him salvaging a live show with an a capella “Chain Gang” is one of the film’s highlights.
Aldis Hodge, long a secret weapon in films, imbues his Brown with more anger and depth as he debates a future beyond football. In one of the film’s most significant scenes, he is humiliated by a wealthy bigot (Beau Bridges) during the Jim Crow era.
Oscar-winning actress Regina King, making her directorial debut, just gives her actors room to breathe. And the dialogue crackles, resonating beyond that night and emphasizing the impact these men had in their lives.
By the end of the year, Malcolm X was assassinated and Cooke was killed in a sketchy incident – and the athletes became two of the greatest there ever was.
This evening may have taken place nearly 57 years ago but it feels timely. It’s definitely a conversation-starter for any age.
“One Night in Miami” is a drama based on Kemp Powers’ play, directed by Regina King and starring Kingsley Ben-Adir, Leslie Odom Jr., Aldis Hodge and Eli Goree. Rated R for language throughout, the movie’s run-time is 1 hr. 54 min. Lynn’s Grade: B+
Now playing in theatres and on Amazon Prime Jan. 15
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.