Criticisms surrounding Regina King’s feature directorial debut seem to focus on its nature as an adaptation. Scripted by Soul scribe Kemp Powers from his own play of the same name, it would be easy to lump One Night in Miami in with a litany of other stage adaptations that feel as if someone haphazardly plopped a camera in front of the proscenium. But the film’s core issue isn’t that it reeks of the theater, but rather that it feels too slight, an effort more closely resembling the form of the made for TV movie.

As in Powers’ play, the film largely takes place the night Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship, cementing his status as an icon in the world of boxing and beyond. Powers explores the celebration between Clay and three other towering Black historical figures, each at their own crossroads.

Aldis Hodge plays Jim Brown, fresh off his first ever acting job, mulling whether or not to leave football behind for the big screen. Hamilton alum Leslie Odom Jr brings Sam Cooke back to life, portraying the crooner just after he bombed at the Copa. But Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) proves to be the most central figure, as the leader has grown disillusioned with the Nation of Islam and hopes to build something new, hopefully with the help of these men.

Each of the four leads bring their respective characters to varying degrees of life, with Goree perhaps coming the closest with his boisterous turn as Clay, even if he does occasionally border on parody. Hodge possesses Brown’s charisma and presence but doesn’t have nearly as much to chew on as Ben-Adir and Odom Jr do with Malcolm and Cooke, especially when the two wind up butting heads on social issues.

Most of the film’s fun lies in the interplay between the four men. Once they all get together in the hotel room and the debates and conversation begin to fly, it becomes easy to see why Powers penned this play and why King wanted to adapt it for the screen. There’s something undeniably fascinating about this particular brand of fan-fiction, of imagining the back and forth between these figures who helped shape Black culture in such long lasting ways.

But as interesting as those arguments can be, King’s direction doesn’t bring a great deal to the proceedings. Her experienced hand surely aids the ensemble in functioning as well as it does, and in a lesser helmer’s hands this movie might be the staid, “filmed play” some found it to be. That said, however, One Night in Miami feels like the kind of “what if?” TV movie networks put out for Emmy contention on a yearly basis, with a conclusion that feels like the final act montage of an episode of “This is Us” and performances that, while entertaining, fail to elevate the lacking material. It’s a fine enough film, but nowhere near as memorable or affecting as its year end list placements might suggest.

Summary
One Night in Miami’s core issue isn’t that it reeks of the theater, but rather that it feels too slight, an effort more closely resembling the form of the made for TV movie.
52 %
Fascinating disappointment
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