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‘One Night in Miami’: Some thrilling sparring between Cassius Clay and other heavyweights of history

Four actors put powerful spins on Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and the man we’d soon know as Muhammad Ali.

Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge, from left), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) hang out in 1964 in ‘‘One Night in Miami.”
Amazon Studios

The joke making the social media rounds in the wake of the Georgia Senate runoffs goes like this:

“A Black man and a Jewish man walk into a bar in Georgia and the bartender says, ‘What’ll you have, senators?’”

Virtually every “walk into a bar” joke ever told is based on a premise of, “Now there’s something you don’t see every day.” And so it goes with films and TV series that use a real-life meeting between notable figures as a launching point for largely (or completely) fictional works of entertainment, whether it be The King and the President meeting in “Elvis & Nixon” (2016) or Queen Elizabeth’s conversations with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in “The Crown” or even the recent “The Comey Rule” on Showtime, which re-imagines a dinner between the director of the FBI and the beleaguered president.

Director Regina King’s memorably electric “One Night in Miami” (based on the 2013 stage play of the same name by Kemp Powers, who adapted his work for the screen and is the co-writer and co-director of Pixar’s “Soul”) is based on the real-life convergence of Cassius Clay (who would soon become known to the world as Muhammad Ali), Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Malcolm X in Miami Beach in 1964, on the night Clay defeated the favored Sonny Liston and became heavyweight champion of the world. At Ali’s urging, the four men wound up in Malcolm X’s room at the Hampton House Motel for a long night of discussion. Others were present in the room, but for the sake of dramatic impact, “One Night in Miami” is a four-man show, with crackling good performances by Kingsley Ben-Adir (who played Barack Obama in the aforementioned “The Comey Rule”) as Malcolm X, Leslie Odom Jr. as Cooke, Eli Goree as Clay/Ali and Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown.

After a series of scene-setting opening vignettes, including the mesmerizingly great Cooke performing at the Copacabana to a dismissive and rude all-white crowd and conquering NFL hero Brown visiting an old friend and neighbor in his hometown in Georgia, where the pleasantries take a harsh and racist turn, “One Night in Miami” spends the bulk of its time in Malcolm X’s hotel suite, where the four men gather to celebrate Ali’s monumental victory — a celebration that turns into a long and sometimes contentious night of debate and discussion about each man’s place in the world in 1964, and what they’re doing to advance the cause of racial and social equality. (Director King opens up the stage work and gives us a chance to take a breather from the tense and heated moments with forays to a rooftop, the hotel bar and a liquor store.)

At first, Malcolm X comes across as almost nerdy and is teased by the alpha jock football player and boxer and the sex-symbol crooner — but as the night deepens, Malcolm becomes more forceful as he challenges the others, particularly Cooke, to use their platforms and their gifts to effect real change. When Cooke says he sticks primarily to old-fashioned love songs because protest music doesn’t sell, Malcolm plays a recording of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which had become a mega-hit. (Of course, it being 1964, even the hipster young mainstream audience in America was no doubt more likely to embrace an anthem from a white man than from Sam Cooke.)

With Terence Blanchard’s score beautifully augmenting the history-in-the-making gathering of these four icons at a pivotal moment in their lives, “One Night in Miami” is filled with profoundly impactful exchanges, and a sprinkling of edgy, comedic observations, e.g., when Brown cracks about Malcolm X that it’s always the lighter skinned Blacks who are the most radical. And there’s a bittersweet cloud hanging over the proceedings, as we know both Cooke and Malcolm X will be shot and killed within a year of this evening.

Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) takes some ribbing from his famous friends.
Amazon Studios

The performances are universally excellent, with Leslie Odom Jr. beautifully conveying Cooke’s magnetism on stage and off; Kingsley Ben-Adir capturing Malcolm’s single-minded determination and dedication to the cause; Eli Goree managing to sound and look like Clay/Ali without delving into an easy impersonation, and Hodge delivering a nuanced performance as Jim Brown, who often acts as the go-between, the interpreter, between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke, who want the same things but have very different ideas about how to achieve those goals.

We don’t know the details of that famous meeting of four legends more than half-century ago, but if it was anything like what plays out in “One Night in Miami,” oh what a night.