This is an archive image of Malcolm X with Mohammed Ali and other friends in a cafe. Malcolm is behind the counter, taking a picture of Ali who is posing for the camera. It was used to illustrate Malcolm's relationships in "One Night in Miami".
Bob Gomel

Humour is everywhere. Probably the most remarkable part about One Night in Miami, is the warmth and affection lining every part of the film.

Whenever we think of icons or revolutionaries —the ones we read about in history books— we often imagine them as flat characters. Their entire being is confined to their activism or whatever life changing effect they had on new generations. We never get a glimpse of their humanity laid out in a way that’s palpable, familiar or understood. A part of that might come from our need to protect ourselves against their horrible reality, an experience that was so difficult, they felt they had to put their lives on the line to change it. But it’s this reveal, this raw retelling of the true personalities of some of the people behind the 60s black liberation movement, that makes One Night in Miami so special.

What did you imagine of life during the era of Malcom X (Kingsley Ben-Adir)? Or when Sam Cooke’s (Leslie Odom Jr.) music wasn’t relegated to just an archival sound you’d turn to when you wanted to listen to the oldies? Imagine the thought process behind Cassius Clay’s (Eli Goree) shift in identity or better yet, Jim Brown’s (Aldis Hodge) take on some of the greatest despairs of his time? Screen writer Kemp Powers and director Regina King touch on the humanity behind these icons, showing that even though a lot of change came out of their sacrifices, somethings have stayed the same.

One Night in Miami proposes that they were way more than their accomplishments; they were ordinary but most importantly they were hilarious. In fact, early in the film, Clay looks in the mirror, tugs at his face and looks displeased. All three men gather to see what the problem is, they are patient, even worried; after all, he’d just finished a boxing match so they’re concerned that there might be something wrong with him. So they lean in close only for Clay to ask, “why am I so pretty?”

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A remake of Kemp Powers’ stage play of the same name, One Night in Miami is largely set within the confines of a motel. Much of the action, conversation, and drama is just in one room. Sure, the four leave the room in moments, but for the most part, the film is about their conversations, think Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem. It helps to keep audiences from getting distracted from the exchanges between the men and so, every emotion, frustration, or inflection feels much more pronounced and their words, more piercing.

The film shows the precarious life of Malcom X at the height of his fame, power, and probably also his despair, as he felt an impending sense of doom. He was anxious because he’d just discovered that his Muslim organization, The Nation of Islam, is ready to oust him because he was no longer willing to silently acquiesces to the politics that was causing friction and disharmony among its members. He wanted to adhere to a stricter way of practicing Islam and he felt the only way to do it, was if he started his own organization. Cassius Clay was the key to his success.

Clay was a big deal then. He’d just become the world heavyweight champion. So if he were to announce his conversion to Islam and his support of Malcom’s new found organization, it would change everything. With the backdrop of this important ask, we’re also able to follow the period before Clay officially announces his conversion to Islam and changes his name to Muhammad Ali. Old friends Sam Cooke, and NFL athlete, Jim Brown are invited to celebrate Clay but they just happen to be there to witness Malcom’s breakdown. He’s scared of the possibility of being followed and takes out his frustration on his friends.

“You know what is going on around us, it should make everyone angry. You Bourgeois negros, you’re too happy with your scraps to really understand what is at stake here,” Malcom demands.

Actually, none of them stay away from probing observations but for the most part, the offenses come from Malcom. He challenges everyone but especially his problem with the black elite. Yet as edifying as his speeches are, there is always a touch of tenderness and absurdity in the room.

The film is fun. Humour is everywhere. Probably the most remarkable part about One Night in Miami, is the warmth and affection lining every part of the film, the nuance and attention to portraying fully developed personalities. All four leads are so convincing and arresting. They offer so much context into who these renegades were, normal people.

They were all muddled or disoriented by difficult choices they had to make to either improve the circumstances of their people or themselves. But they were more than we knew. Malcom X wasn’t simply narrow minded in his fight for change, he was extremely judgmental, he was a father, a friend, and also very boring. With the pressure to secure some kind of backup for his new organization, he was pushy, arguably insulting with his ideals but in the end, it makes a difference. Brown isn’t just a successful NFL player, he is acutely aware of the black experience, particularly its intersection with colourism and shrewd on the unnatural expectation for every black person to be a martyr for the movement. He’s even more so precise on the internal conflict on deciding between benefiting only yourself or your people.

“You know I always find it kind of funny how you light-skinned cats always end up being so damn militant,” Brown says, confronting Malcom’s bias. Amazingly, he distilles Malcom’s bias so clearly, that it causes Malcom to pause and reflect. “I just wonder if all this pushing and hardline this and hardline that, is really about trying to prove something to white people. Or Malcom, is it about trying to prove something to black people?”

Just as well, Cooke is shown to be more than an amazing singer.  He was also a successful business man with foresight to understand the implications of letting white artists take on black music while also understanding the long-term benefits he would get from royalties. Cooke was the perfect conduit to embody the paradox of deciding between pandering or trying to find the balance to produce meaning without being overwhelmed by oppression.

Kemp Powers is brilliant. He did a fantastic job at bringing to screen, the philosophical discussions that every black family has in private. Touching on how unfair it is to ask black people to model their whole life on a caus,e without a moment to pause and actually enjoy life, but also, how necessary it is. Powers makes you wonder, how much do you have to compromise to really help your people?

Like every black historical work, we all know before watching, that it will end in misery but sometimes, the journey to that revelation isn’t so traumatic. Still, One Night in Miami, ends just as you would expect, especially if you remember anything about Malcom X and his legacy. You don’t even need to know anything about black history to understand it. But at least Powers made us enjoy our time for a bit before we are reminded of how cruel life can be. It’s the kind of film that you’ll enjoy if you have a preference for thought provoking content wrapped up with humor and sarcasm. There is a lot of learning and hard truths. Even so, it’s definitely worth a watch even if it’s only for one time.

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