It certainly wasn't easy.
One Night in Miami opens with a montage that shows the highs and lows of the Black experience in America in the pre-civil rights era.
We see singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), riding high off a string of hits, including the smoldering "You Send Me," bending down to playing bland cover songs to a bored, wealthy white crowd at the Copacabana in order to gain entrance into that society.
We see Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), the future Mohammad Ali, seizing the heavyweight championship belt from Sonny Liston but having to spend the night in a rundown motel in the African-American section of Miami because the "proper" hotels wouldn't have him. And we view the incendiary Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) being controlled by a malignant Nation of Islam as he attempts to gain a wider audience.
And in the most surprising set-up scene, football great Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) visits the home of a wealthy white supporter (Beau Bridges) in his Georgia hometown. He is greeted kindly and offered lemonade on the front veranda of the estate. But when Brown offers to come inside to help move furniture, Bridges' character uses the "n" word to tell him that his kind are not allowed in the house.
It is all about compromises, some of them difficult to swallow. A star musician, a future boxing legend, one of the greatest running backs of all time and an incandescent figure for racial justice. All of them having to make their own sacrifices where they are not accepted or entirely endorsed by the mainstream.
It is with that prelude that Regina King, the actress making her directing debut, spends the rest of the film having her camera float like a butterfly around a hotel suite, while her characters sting each other for their disparate beliefs. All of this spins around a central question: how can a Black person make their way in an America that wants to see them but only from a distance? There is respect to gain, power to gain, acceptance to gain.
Everything is on the line in an America that is starting to change but where anger and frustration are continuing to creep into the hearts of many Black people.
One Night in Miami has a great set-up. Clay invites Cooke, Malcolm X and Brown to his hotel room to celebrate his win on an evening in 1964. The foursome are locked together and attempt to bond. But differences ensue. Philosophies and lifestyles are challenged. Fights almost break out. And what is left is a portrait of proud men at the precipice of a new era in American history.
In a few years, the rest of the world will have caught up with their roiling anger and morphed it into a universal protest movement. But only two of the four men together that night will live to see it -- both Malcolm X and Sam Cooke will be dead within a few months of the meeting. Brown will escape into action pictures and Ali to Canada to avoid the Vietnam draft.
One Night in Miami is based on a real-life encounter between these Black icons that fateful year. However, whether they actually spent a night together discussing politics and the state of race relations is unknown. The film is adapted from a stage play that dramatizes the events while allowing the characters to breathe -- and sometimes swallow the air around them, as Malcolm X can do at times.
The movie, while broadening the setting from the theatricality of the originality, retains elements of a play. It is dialogue-heavy and light in movement. There are a few scenes where characters drift outside the room or to a liquor store, but most of the movie takes place in one ramshackle motel suite. The camera lens twists to each character and focuses on their physical movements in an attempt to capture their positions and their discordance.
Cooke, used to more refined surroundings, looks under the mattresses and hints that the room is a dump unfit for four world-class icons. The tension is upgraded by the presence of two Nation of Islam members, acting as would-be thugs, both guarding the door and ensuring that Malcolm X does not leave.
But even within its strict confines, the movie succeeds on many levels. Ben-Adir, little known outside of cultish TV shows such as Peaky Blunders, largely ignites the movie's momentum. He is multi-dimensional, conflicted but never willing to yield to others for the sake of Black freedom. He is proud, sinewy in body with eyes that pierce behind horn-rimmed glasses.
Ben-Adir plays him as a man who knows he is trapped and in danger for his life (there are anonymous strangers watching his every step in the shadows outside the hotel). He is also attempting to recruit Clay to Muslim Brotherhood, even as he is not certain he can accept the teachings of the Nation of Islam's supreme leader, Elijah Mohammad. Cooke mocks Malcolm X, telling him that he has seen Mohammad's mansion in the Hollywood hills and that he is not truly a man of the people. Ben-Adir's character knows the characters that he has chosen to side with are both passionate defenders of the faith and also shady bullies who cannot allow anyone to disagree or leave their movement.
Odom plays against Ben-Adir, and the former "Hamilton" actor is gracious to a point but is equally stubborn. Cooke wants to enter white society and attract the riches that come with writing hits. But he is trapped by racial tropes, much as Malcolm is trapped within the Nation of Islam. He is considered one of the anomalies, a Black man writing pop hits, and not as a person who can easily integrate with others.
But Odom's Cooke maintains his dignity, even as he is troubled by the times. In the movie, he listens to another chart-topper, Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," and is reminded that he hasn't written protest songs that are equally attuned to what he sees outside his window.
The movie's best scene come from the face-off between the two. Malcolm accuses Cooke of selling out and not giving enough back to his Black community. Cooke responds that instead of preaching and pointing out injustice, he gives to Black enterprises so that they can take hold within the system, not outside of it.
Malcolm continues to jeer Cooke, to the point where they almost come to fisticuffs on the hotel roof before the Nation of Islam tough guys intervene. Cooke walks out at one point, having heard enough, but returns when he realizes that the others are like kin to him.
Clay and Brown's characters are not as defined. Goree's Clay is a man-boy, jumping on a mattress in glee at one point and going along with Malcolm mainly because he is asked to do so. His greatest character trait is his telling anyone within earshot that he is the greatest. The real Mohammad Ali may have been just as immature when he started his fighting career but it is hard to reconcile his image as a charismatic leader with the character in the film.
When Cooke questions whether Clay is really ready to embrace the Muslim faith that Malcolm X is preaching, the fighter can barely respond. That is unless the loquacious character we're used to seeing. He is unsure of the future of the movement, even as he is also treated as a second-class citizen himself.
Hodge's Brown is quieter, more steely, more ready to work behind the scenes for justice. He breaks up the confrontations between the proud men who have difficulties getting along. But he is not a central character to the plot.
That is the movie's greatest hole, but it is overcome for the most part by the searing oratory of Ben-Adir's Malcolm X and the smoother protests of Odom's Cooke. They represent two sides of the Black experience in mid-1960s America -- working for justice through protest on one hand and working within the system to change it on the other. The movie takes no sides in this debate.
It is near the end of the film when Cooke sings a new song he wrote, "A Change is Gonna Come," when the disagreements dissipate like echos becoming fainter. The song, coming to Cooke in a dream after hearing the Rev. Martin Luther King, presaged the civil rights movement and the social unrest about to discomfit much of America.
Listening to it from the gifted Odom was like watching honey wash over sulfur. Cooke would not live long enough to watch it become a hit, but it became his parting gift to a world about to evolve. King's movie is aware of this fact, and so are the characters who have seen plenty worthy of changing.