This review is based on an advance screening of “One Night in Miami” through this critic’s membership as a voter for the annual Film Independent Spirit Awards.

Four men gather in a hotel room to celebrate the accomplishments of one of their own.

Their party turns into a deep, philosophical conversation that crystallizes a moment in time in American history and challenges each to become a better version of themselves.

It’s already tantalizing subject matter for prestige drama, but make those men civil rights activist Malcolm X, football star Jim Brown and music sensation Sam Cooke getting together with their friend, newly crowned boxing champ Cassius Clay mere hours before he becomes Muhammad Ali; now that’s truly something special.

Based on a fictionalized account of one evening in the early 1960s, Oscar winning actress Regina King steps behind the director’s chair for the first time adapting Kemp Powers’ critically acclaimed 2013 stage play One Night in Miami.

King delivers a feature that’s terrifically solid in its cinema, but truly special in its theater. An opening salvo introduces the four protagonists individually with some matter of gusto, yet when King gets them all into one moderately sized hotel room together, the true magic of One Night in Miami occurs.

The film takes on its stage roots and becomes a dialogue heavy masterclass in character development, active listening and dramatic monologuing. King draws exceptional performances out of her leading men by knowing how to put them in the right spots to succeed and framing each in such a way that the men they portray feel as larger than life than their celebrity status suggests.

The success or failure of One Night rests squarely on casting and King absolutely crushes it with four massive home runs to fill out her small ensemble cast.

Kingsley Ben-Adir could very easily earn an Academy Award nomination for his soft-spoken, yet stirring turn as X, a man conflicted by his dissolving relationship with the Nation of Islam trying to keep it together to bring three influential celebrities into the fold.

Ben-Adir approaches each scene with a vigor as if his life is on the line rather than that of the character he portrays and it gives Ben-Adir an earnestness and resolve to calmly, yet forcefully attack each line of dialogue with a demonstrable passion that’s half convincing his friends and half convincing himself.

Both physically and in temperament, Eli Goree perfectly captures Ali’s charismatic cadence and unrelentingly affable personality and yet he infuses Ali with a quiet thoughtfulness that slowly bubbles to the surface over the course of two hours as Ali takes in debates between Cooke and X.

In a performance that’s more “float like a butterfly” than “sting like a bee,” Goree instantly rallies the audience to Ali’s side with a pitch perfect delivery of lines Ali probably never said but feel so genuine and authentic in Goree’s delivery.

As Brown, Aldis Hodge acts as the group’s stabilizing force, a literal mountain of a man that rarely speaks, but chooses his words with intention.

Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr. blends his magnetic singing voice with some truly inspired acting work as Cooke, infusing the singer with a confidence that borders on self-righteousness but doesn’t become overly egotistical.

Each of the four approaches their character with a different take on the same basic concept, famous African American men twisting in the wind while trying to find the right path to help themselves and their community at large. 

At times, One Night captures the same trapped energy that 12 Angry Men does by locking talented actors into a single room and engaging in sharp, thought provoking dialogue.

King develops the tension by constantly circling the room with the camera, keeping the viewers’ eyes ping-ponging back and forth between X and Ali on one side and a wary Cooke on the other.

One Night will likely be a major player in this year’s awards conversation with solid chances at Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay leading the way. The film could also be Amazon’s best shot at golden trophies and may lead to financially-backed campaigns for acting noms for Ben-Adir and Goree as well as directing honors for King, a shoo-in for any first feature prizes from awards groups.

One Night works as a perfect double feature with Netflix’s new adaptation of the August Wilson play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and is well worth seeking out when it arrives on Amazon Prime in mid-January.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: