A lot of historically inspired films are, realistically, historical fan fiction. However, this does become a problem when they also feel like historical fan fiction – and this is the case with One Night in Miami. This adaptation of a stage play dramatises the night after Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) became the heavyweight champion of the world, where Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Ali met up together in a hotel room.
What follows is a puppeteered dream of how the conversation might have gone. But, not before some limp scene setting where we get introductions to our major players. We open with a jaunty score, that distracts throughout the film and only adds to the uncinematic feel this stage adaptation cultivates throughout its runtime. From here, we get potted introductions of some key figures, in a way that feels rushed and forced and lacks any presence or energy.
There are standout moments later, a few musical sequences are great – one is outstanding – and the overall topic is inherently interesting. There is a base level joy to seeing these vital figures converse, all coming from different angles, but none of these characters ever gets a convincing voice. The writing, and direction, makes each figure feel like an impersonation – Malcolm X especially who is more of a mouthpiece for Malcolm adjacent rhetoric than any kind of convincing portrayal.
The central conflicts are interesting, and dealt with adequately. Yet, the film skirts around and describes issues more than it engages with them. At the end, a political stance is not overtly clear and the audience may sometimes find themselves at odds with the content. I found myself consistently in agreement with Malcolm, even if his presentation was not great, yet the film keeps at a distance. It is more interested in hearing radical views than espousing them, and wants you to think these views are fringe or extreme, even if it recognises their merit.
This all falls back on the central issue: this is a faltering adaptation that doesn’t feel like a strongly directed work. There is evidence of real talent from everybody here but the work is not bold enough, clear enough and – ultimately – not engaging enough. It sits on the screen, and sits nicely enough, but it doesn’t get beyond this.