Regina King is such a brilliant actor that it’s not surprising she works wonders with the stellar male ensemble in her directing debut, One Night in Miami.
Adapted by Kemp Powers from his 2013 speculative stage play, the action is set in just a single night —Feb. 25, 1964, the night that Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) won the world heavyweight championship at age 22 by defeating Sonny Liston in a title bout at the Miami Beach Convention Center. It unfolds largely in single hotel room where Clay celebrates with friends Malcolm X (Kinglsey Ben-Adir); football legend Jim Brown Aldis Hodge; and singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.).
The compact setting and time frame expands rather than limits the drama. We get to hear the four characters, each wrestling with fame, racial injustice and personal ambition, talk, argue, tease one another and even sing. King allows these virtuosic performances to flourish. Moments of levity and tension; verbal fireworks vulnerabilities and macho bravado reveal each character as he deals with his life in the moment: Malcolm X is about to break with the Nation of Islam; Clay is about to declare he’s a Muslim and will now be known as Muhammed Ali; Brown weights life after the NFL and Cooke defends his performing for white audiences by listing the ways in which he promotes and helps advance Black musicians and songwriters.
The acting is masterful and modulated as all four actors go beyond what we know about these historical figures to deliver their contradictions and quirks, their psyches and defenses. By the time Cooke launches into one of his signature songs, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” with a tour de force performance by Odom, the night has come full circle and we see each character both within and transcending their moment in time.