For people whose work involves spending time with celebrities, they’re usually asked the same question by friends: What’s so-and-so like in real life? On one level, we’re curious because we’re looking for gossip — Are they awful? Are they down-to-earth? — but on another, we’re fascinated at the prospect that famous folks are, basically, just like the rest of us. We want to know what insecurities and banal foibles they have — we wonder about their weird pet peeves or odd habits. Basically, we want to know what makes them tick.
One of the pleasures of One Night in Miami, the directorial debut of Oscar-winning actress Regina King, is that it allows us into the world of four famous men who hung out together one evening in 1964. Although a fictionalized account, the movie does a remarkable job of imagining what it must have been like for Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Cassius Clay and Jim Brown to meet up, shoot the breeze and compare notes on their shared experiences as Black celebrities at a time of great social upheaval. What happens in One Night in Miami probably isn’t what actually occurred, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that King has communicated the sense of flesh-and-blood human beings trying to balance their public personas with their interior worlds. The movie offers a plausible theory of what these men were like in real life.
The film is based on a 2013 play by Kemp Powers, who based his work on the events of February 25, 1964. That was the night that Clay (Eli Goree) beat Sonny Liston in a title bout in Miami and then celebrated by palling around with his buddies Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), football player Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.). Seeking a moment away from the spotlight, the men get together in a hotel room, where Clay lets them in on a secret: He’s going to change his name to Muhammad Ali to signal his embrace of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X ought to be pleased about Clay’s decision, but he’s currently going through a crisis of conscience: He doesn’t know if the Nation is right for him anymore. Quickly, his doubts open up fault lines between these friends — including the fact that Malcolm doesn’t think Cooke is using his talent to its fullest potential. Why does Cooke sing such fluff? What doesn’t he make music that speaks to the struggles that Black men and women are facing in America? And so a debate begins.
The inferior version of One Night in Miami would be a position paper in which the four protagonists argue their diametrically-opposed points of view on civil rights, Black identity and life itself — reducing the men to mere symbols in the process. Instead, King and her collaborators tap into the characters’ humanity, understanding that when a group of men get together, they’ll spend a lot of the time giving each other shit before finally getting down to the emotional tensions underlying their friendship.
This is another way of saying that One Night in Miami is often very funny, particularly in how the other guys enjoy needling Malcolm X for being a bit of a nerd. The Malcolm Xes we’ve seen on screen — most notably Denzel Washington’s magnetic, Oscar-nominated performance in the Spike Lee film — were often fiery, towering figures. But One Night in Miami reminds us that, among the people who know you best, you will absolutely get called out on your foolishness, and Ben-Adir is marvelous at suggesting the insecurity and fragility of a leader who’s not nearly as confident as he seems in front of the TV cameras. This shouldn’t be a surprise — famous people have all types of self-doubts, just like you and me — but One Night in Miami returns these iconic men to life-sized proportions. Their conversation will eventually encompass the fraught political climate of the 1960s — specifically, the terror of racism they feel acutely because they’re in the public eye — but it originates from the hangups and petty feuds that define most male friendships.
At the same time, though, the actors capably convey the singular traits of their famous counterparts. Goree nails Clay’s preening swagger — he can’t help it that he’s so pretty — while Hodge effortlessly suggests Brown’s intimidating demeanor. But although One Night in Miami emphasizes the characters’ normalcy, it juxtaposes that with the burden that they carry as Black celebrities. Clay’s decision to risk a backlash by changing his name sparks discussion about what, precisely, their obligation is to furthering the cause of civil rights. If Cooke wants to sing lightweight love songs, is he shirking his responsibility?
It’s a dilemma white celebrities face in a less-intense way — what’s the best use for the powerful megaphone they have? — but for these four men, the question is far more complicated, because the consequences can be far more severe. People worshipped Bob Dylan for writing a protest anthem like “Blowin’ in the Wind” — by contrast, Black stars have to fear for their lives if they dare step out of line. Malcolm X thinks they should use their power to boldly challenge the status quo. But what if Cooke doesn’t feel the same? Maybe Cooke is doing more good by quietly supporting other Black performers with the clout he has in the recording industry. What’s the best way to tear down white supremacy?
One Night in Miami ripples with these questions, which helps mitigate the inherent staginess of the source material. These four men are so well-known, but inside that claustrophobic hotel room, they’re just four guys, all of them bonded by the uniqueness of their lives. By humanizing them, King doesn’t simply go beyond their personas — she shows the vulnerability of Black men who don’t feel entirely comfortable in a country that celebrates their talent but dislikes their race. And what’s constantly evident in One Night in Miami is how different Malcolm X is than the others, who are gifted artists or athletes. He can speak passionately and inspire crowds, but he can’t infiltrate the world of whites the way his friends can. There’s something deeply lonely about this Malcolm X — he’s the geek among the jocks and musicians. They’re all alienated in a sense due to their celebrity, but even among his friends, he’s the lone wolf. Ben-Adir is exceedingly touching in the role, subtly previewing the fate that awaits his character.
The movie, which comes to theaters on Christmas before streaming on Amazon Prime Video in January, builds to a finale that suggests the momentousness of these men’s next steps in life. Without pomposity, King hints that this hotel hangout wasn’t just a chance for these guys to catch up: It propelled them forward, sometimes toward greatness and sometimes toward tragedy. At the very least, it was the last time they’d all be together. Each of them would go on being the famous individuals that the world saw, but only in that room could they really be themselves. One Night in Miami is a reminder that the people we see on our screen are often far more fascinating than their persona suggests. Their real lives are the precious thing they keep from the rest of us.