One night in Miami, Cassius Clay, not yet Muhammad Ali, is celebrating his heavyweight world boxing title rather quietly, in a seedy motel room, with a few of his friends. This is a fictional account, the way screenwriter Kemp Powers (who adapts it from his own play) imagined it, of one remarkable night where four Black icons – Clay (Eli Goree), soul man Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), NFL star turned movie star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) got together and inevitably discussed their roles in the civil rights movement, what they did or did not owe their people, the cost of their success, and the general cultural upheaval of the 1960s.
Of course, Malcolm X’s idea of a good time is vanilla ice cream and a lecture. He wants and expects his friends to be weapons in the cause. His expectations are sky high and everyone around him invariable feel as though they aren’t measuring up. They were young, black, famous, and unapologetic, but they had one thing that Malcolm X felt they took for granted, that he wanted for all his people, not just a few lucky exceptions: power. Black power.
One Night In Miami does an exceptional job of putting us in the mind frame of Malcolm X shortly he was martyred for his cause. His idea of brotherhood was strong if unconventional, and he was willing to push the Black compatriots who were positioned to effect change just as much as he was challenging the white people invested in keeping them down. This was not the time for people to sit on the fence, he believed, not with Black folks dying in the street. And with so simple a phrase, screenwriter Powers reminds us how timely this movement still is, even 60 years later.
Regina King choose this as her feature-length directorial debut, and what a time and place for her to come out swinging. Making full use of Malcolm X’s last days and last words, she pins us to the moment while tethering us to the movement at large, to its consequences and to the work still to be done. King and company reframe was at the time attributed to “militance” to passion, urgency, and prescience.
Regina King describes her film as “a love letter to the Black man’s experience in America.” Four cultural icons who may not be living the average Black experience, but who are open and vulnerable with each other, expressing fears and concerns. Knowing her film had a valuable contribution to make in the current conversation, King pushed herself to get the film made despite this year’s many obstacles, and made history on Monday night as the first African American woman to have her film be selected by the Venice Film Festival, notorious for its lack of diversity and gender parity. Her film is pushing more than one needle in the right direction, and TIFF audiences should be grateful to participate.