Drama envisions a night shared between Black icons Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown

Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown walk into a hotel room.

A setup for a joke? Hardly. It’s the premise of “One Night in Miami,” director Regina King’s thoughtful adaptation of Kemp Powers’ stage play, about a fictional meeting of the four Black cultural icons at an important crossroads in both their lives and in the American civil rights movement. 

Yes, fictional: while this meeting of the minds did in fact occur, not much is known about what went down during the fateful gathering. “One Night in Miami” — Powers wrote the screenplay, and King fleshes it out with scenes that show each man in their individual element — imagines this night as an evening of camaraderie, kinship, confrontation and challenge, with the four figures pushing each other to make a stand for what they believe in and to become who they ultimately became. In real life they may have just partied for a few hours and patted each other on the back. But where’s the consequence in that? 

The night in question is Feb. 25, 1964, when Ali — then Cassius Clay, and played with sparkling energy by Eli Goree — took the heavyweight title belt off of Sonny Liston in a bout at the Miami Convention Center. Post-fight, he meets up with his pal Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) at the Hampton House, a nearby motel, and they’re soon joined by singing sensation Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and gridiron hero Brown (Aldis Hodge). 

As it so happens, each man is at a transitional phase in their lives and careers. Clay is on the verge of announcing he’s joined the Nation of Islam, and will change his name to Muhammad Ali, just as Malcolm X is on his way out of the Nation. Cooke is popular for singing pop songs but longs to put his voice to something of true meaning. And Brown, having done pretty much all he can do on a football field, is looking to switch gears to Hollywood stardom. 

Each is struggling internally with their position and what it means in a greater context, and how that context applies to the larger canvas of burgeoning societal change. They know they have true greatness within themselves but don’t grasp fully what that means, as they’re blazing paths into largely uncharted territory, given the opportunities afforded to Black Americans at the time.

“One Night in Miami” has the benefit of hindsight, as does the audience watching it: We know where these men are headed, and the film’s “what if” scenario imagines the role this night pushed them to get there. To reach that end, it’s at times heavy-handed and dramatically fraught, burdened by the weight of the ends it must reach. But it’s an engaging piece of fan fiction, lively and spirited, that takes on important issues of identity, change and responsibility. 

The four lead actors are a tight ensemble, with none overwhelming or outshining the others, even as their characters’ personalities range from the rambunctious (Goree’s Ali) to the reserved (Hodge’s Brown). Together they’re a snug fit, and they’re each given near-equal screen time and heft. No one walks away with the movie, it’s truly a team effort. 

King successfully takes “One Night in Miami” outside the tight confines of the motel room where it might have otherwise felt suffocated, staging scenes on the building’s roof and in its parking lot, and breaking up the storytelling with snapshots of the men that places their stories against a larger societal backdrop. She paints a well-rounded portrait of four individuals who helped shape modern America and the night where their fates converged. A change was gonna come; what “One Night in Miami” says is it  the ways it didn’t happen on its own. 

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‘One Night in Miami’


Rated R: for language throughout

Running time: 114 minutes

In theaters Friday, on Amazon Prime Video Jan. 15

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