Not, as some readers of my blog might hope, a sequel to Murray Head’s propulsive sexy board-game-based song One Night in Bangkok, Regina King’s film for Amazon Prime is one of the few movies that would have been a 2021 certain awards-season contender even without a field drastically weakened by the worldwide cinema-shutdown. The idea is simple and accessible; Nation of Islam advocate Malcolm X, boxer Muhammad Ali, football star turned movie-maker Jim Brown and singer Sam Cooke all find themselves in a hotel room in Miami, winter 1964, in the aftermath of Ali’s title fight with Sonny Liston. Theatrical in origins and execution, King’s lift is based on a 2013 play by Kemp Powers, and while it still feels like a play, it’s a good one and well worth the adaptation.
King takes her time with the opening, establishing issues in their lives before we see the meeting of these remarkable men; of these opening gambits, the most significant is Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and his potential split with the Nation of Islam. Ali will mark his most high-profile conversion, but the sportsman, played by Eli Goree, has no idea that Malcolm X is potentially on his way out. Neither man has time for girls or stimulants, but Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Cooke are more inclined, given their show-biz background. But Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr) is frustrated that despite his affluence, he’s still rejected by largely white audiences, while Brown’s movie career is in its early days; his success in football has brought him up against white privilege in the form of a racist friend (a one-scene shot from Beau Bridges). With four different men seeking shelter from a rabid press under one roof, Malcolm X triggers a night of soul-searching that sets each man on a markedly different path.
It’s a shame Kemp and King aren’t more interested in Brown or even Ali; the central conflict here is between Malcolm X and Cooke, and the nub of the issue is that X feels Cooke is not using his talent and stardom to help the black cause. Malcolm X’s story has already been told by Spike Lee, but King and Kemp offer a snapshot of his life that plays largely because of Odom Jr’s lively performance as Cooke, and a blazing bit from Ben-Adir. Power is under discussion, black power specifically, and coming in on the tails of Black Lives Matter, One Night in Miami is well timed to tap into today’s urgency in terms of how we tackle racism.
The self-seriousness can be suffocating at times; a Key and Peele version of this story might be desirable to wash some of the dryness away. But One Night in Miami manages to do more than preach to the converted by dint of uniformly good acting, art direction and writing; whether your interest is sports, politics or music, there’s insight here that makes King’s film worth seeking out on streaming. The conflict between X and Cooke may not have been a real thing, but this fictional version manages to suggest how balancing conscience and ability might set us free of the chains of the past; sometimes it takes a carefully-positioned improvisation to show us the truth about ourselves.
Thanks to Amazon for sending an awards-screener for this title.