The construct of the psychological deep dive is simple enough. On the night Cassius beat Liston after six rounds, Malcolm arranged a small party with his aforementioned friends and celebrities. Each is at the top of the world in their given field: boxing, football, music, and politics. Yet none realize when they arrive to the motel that it’ll just be them, plus two Nation of Islam brothers standing outside as security.
Malcolm is using this get-together to announce among friends that Cassius is converting to Islam, and that Jim and Sam should also get on board with the good work. This is not to say he necessarily means conversion, though he’d clearly welcome it. But Malcolm himself is less than a month away from leaving the religious and political movement he’s successfully courted Cassius to join—much to Clay’s soon-to-be anger. Indeed, Malcolm is using this night to slowly hint at his own plans of breaking away from NOI leader Elijah Muhammad, and his hopes for each man to do more to help their Black brothers and sisters calling for change. The conversations that arise are not spoken gently.
By adapting Powers’ play, King reveals a flair for direction and, perhaps not surprisingly, working with actors. An Oscar and Emmy winning thespian whose credits include If Beale Street Could Talk and HBO’s Watchmen, King is not new to directing; she’s helmed episodes for numerous television series before. Yet One Night in Miami is her first directorial effort intended for the big screen, and with it, she announces a visual confidence that can overcome the stagebound quality that bedevils most play-to-film transitions, including this one. For Powers’ screenplay can occasionally be heavy-handed in the film’s first act while the picture lays a vast expositional foundation.
However, King overcomes these limitations with as much visual distraction and ringside panache as needed to get them to where the heart of the movie is, and where Powers’ script begins to sizzle as all four outsized personalities butt heads in the same space. It’s also where King allows her ensemble to sing, even if Odom’s dead-on imitation of Cooke’s velvety vocals is the only actual crooning.
Each of the four key performances recreate the well-known tics of their historical personages. And in this arena, Goree is a delight. With wind in his sail after winning the heavyweight belt, his Cassius is so nimble in his dancing and prancing that it’s a wonder his feet ever touch the ground. Yet whereas most biopics, particularly in the last few years, have leaned into the legend of its subjects, One Night in Miami seeks to imagine a psychological truth that’s far slipperier, and far more rewarding.