They never really met like this, debated these issues and foreshadowed their futures this overtly. But if the new heavyweight champ Cassius Clay, on his way to becoming Muhammad Ali, and Malcolm X and singer Sam Cooke and football legend-in-the-making Jim Brown had met, that “One Night in Miami” probably would have set off more sparks than this.
Blessed with a good cast, a passable script based on a play that won’t make anybody forget the poetry of August Wilson’s similarly theatrical/”historical” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and solid if not dazzling direction, we’re left with a somewhat stagebound movie that works and yet only comes close to thrilling just once or twice.
Leslie Odom Jr. (“Hamilton”) delivers chills as doomed pop singer Cooke, and does it in flashbacks that take the movie out of its Miami hotel room setting, showcasing Cooke’s voice and electric stage presence.
Oscar-winner Regina King steps behind the camera and when she “opens the play up,” with a long and terrific prologue introducing Cooke, Clay (Eli Goree), Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Malcolm (Kingsley Ben Adir), she ably sets up the context, builds anticipation and raises expectations.
The movie that follows is just too damned conventional for its own good.
Goree (TV’s “Riverdale”) gives us a Clay who is swagger and braggadocio incarnate, joking around with his cornermen in a fight he will win, but not without having some fun (and almost blowing it) as he does.
Hodge (“Brian Banks” and TV’s “Underground”) brings out Brown’s presence, his simmering, self-assured cool. But even he has to grit his teeth through a “homecoming” meeting with an old backer (Beau Bridges) on his native St. Simon’s Island, Ga., a drawling Antebellum mansion dweller who thinks nothing of reminding Brown he’s also a dyed-in-the-wool racist.
British actor Ben-Adir (“Peaky Blinders,” High Fidelity”) gets across Malcolm’s self-control and discipline as a man on the cusp of breaking with the Nation of Islam over the infidelities and indiscretions of “The Messenger” and leader, “the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.” But when Brown reassures Cooke after an argument that “You know Malcolm. He’s all ‘fire and brimstone’ about everything,” we have to rely on our memories and the charismatic leader and speaker’s reputation. This Malcolm is so buttoned down you kind of wonder what the fuss was about.
They gather in Miami to watch the Feb. 1964 fight with Sonny Liston that won Clay the title. Goree doesn’t disappoint, floating and dancing away from punches in the ring, more joking with his “team” in the corner.
“I TOLD you he’s ugly,” Clay blusters, wide-eyed. “You should see him UP CLOSE!”
Recreating the controversial win and Clay’s riotous bragging from the ring — “I’m the GREATEST! I’m PRETTY!” — the guys gather at Malcolm’s hotel room — Cooke arriving with a guitar and a Ferrari 250GT, Brown with expectations and Clay with Malcolm. At least two of the guys thought they were showing up for a “party.” But no.
Malcolm has an agenda, a concern and maybe a little desperation about his situation. He needs something from all of them.
But high-living Cooke is gently chastised and not-so-gently challenged — “You’re not doing enough for the CAUSE” — by Malcolm. Clay wonders if he’s about to make the wrong decision, coming out as a Muslim with a title belt in his hands. And Brown reveals that he’s just made a movie, is about to make more and isn’t all that interested in Islam.
“Have you TASTED my Grandma’s pork chops?”
Malcolm’s “you bourgeois Negroes” lectures don’t change many minds, but he’s a little off his game. He’s worried about how one “leaves” the Nation of Islam. His desperation doesn’t show, but his powers of persuasion don’t either.
Odom lights up the screen as Cooke, with Hodge and Goree never less than convincing or compelling in a script that doesn’t have much in the way of fireworks.
Ben-Adir’s less inspiring Malcolm seems upstaged by most everybody here. The serene righteous menace Lance Reddick brings to a bodyguard and aide almost washes Ben-Adir off the screen.
Playwright/screenwriter Powers (he co-wrote Pixar’s “Soul”) serves up light skimmings of African American history, color-lines (“You light-skinned cats end up being so militant!”), competitive songwriting and the financial-moral implications that Clay had to take into account before making his gutsy stand.
But for a movie with this kind of awards hype, I was underwhelmed. Watching this after seeing the sometimes spine-tingling “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” make “Miami’s” shortcomings pop out.
It’s not bad. King could develop a more stylish hand as director and Powers could achieve the next level in screenwriting fame — in TV would be my guess.
But as a movie, this “One Night in Miami” is more promising than polished, more righteous than riveting viewing.
MPA Rating: R, boxing violence, profanity, smoking
Cast: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Joaquina Kalukango, Michael Imperioli, Beau Bridges and Lance Reddick.
Credits: Directed by Regina King, script by Kemp Powers, based on his play. An Amazon release.
Running time: 1:53