Regina King seems to have the Midas touch whenever awards season comes around. She has amassed quite a load of gold in the form of an Oscar, four Emmys, a Golden Globe and a SAG ensemble honor in her career. But this year, she might just win gold with her debut behind the camera, One Night in Miami. King has been in training to be a director for a while by helming TV episodes of This Is Us, Insecure and Scandal.
There has been plenty of male ensemble action this year, what with Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods and David Fincher’s Mank. But King’s vision of writer Kemp Powers’s adaptation of his 2013 stage play that imagines what would happen if boxer Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree) – then known as Cassius Clay – football great Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), pop crooner Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and civil rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) came together in a Miami hotel room after the boxer defeated Sonny Liston in February of 1964. What transpires between these charismatic legends is a lively and imminently timely discussion of the civil rights movement and how celebrities fit into the ongoing discussion of racial injustice and equality for all.
While these men are giants in their field, they are held back by barriers in their lives. They must stay in black motels while Cooke is trying to break into white venues such as the Copacabana. Meanwhile, Brown visits a friend (Beau Bridges) on St. Simon’s Island in Georgia, only to be barred from actually going into his mansion.
There is fun to be had with this charismatic foursome as they sneak liquor inside the cramped room, tease each other about their relationships with ladies, and debate Bob Dylan’s songbook while sharing scoops of vanilla ice cream. Goree’s muscular Clay is rightfully brash and bold with his words as he considers becoming a Muslim while Hodge’s Brown ponders pursuing an acting career. But the standouts here are Ben-Adir’s intensely thoughtful X, who is considering breaking away from the Nation of Islam, and Odom Jr., best known for playing Aaron Burr in Hamilton, who delivers marvelous renditions of the soul pioneer’s hits such as You Send Me and his political anthem A Change Is Gonna Come are highlights.
Those who know their history might just get a lump in their throats as the film winds down, knowing that Cooke would die later that year at the age of 33 from a gunshot wound to the chest in a Los Angeles motel. As for Malcolm X, he would be assassinated in 1965 in Manhattan at the age of 39. Here’s to King for honoring these men at a time when we need to hear such stories more than ever. This one is a knock-out, indeed.