Reel Dad: Regina King makes directorial debut with 'One Night in Miami'

“One Night in Miami” is showing in theaters and will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime on Jan. 15.

IMDb / Contributed photo

Movies love to imagine conversations that may have never happened.

Whether or not Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I actually met in real life, their potential encounters have fueled many films. Among last year’s Oscar nominees, the invented chats between a young boy and Adolph Hitler made “Jojo Rabbit” a hit while the possible chit chat between Pope Benedict XVI and his successor Pope Francis lit up “The Two Popes.”

So, what if - on the evening of February 25, 1964 - a 22-year-old boxer named Cassius Clay celebrated defeating Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship by joining Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke for an evening of serious conversation?

Whether or not this gathering of friends happened that evening and, if so, what issues they discussed, are questions that Oscar-winning actress Regina King invites us to wonder in her captivating film, “One Night in Miami.” In her directorial debut, she delivers an evening of emotional discovery that we can hope these heroes of the moment actually shared.

On that evening, Clay is the underdog believed by few to have a chance to beat Liston while Brown is a champion on the football field, Cooke has a catalog of hit songs and Malcolm X is soon to announce new plans for his Muslim community. As each man approaches moments that will define how they impact the world, King makes us want to hear more about what they see in a world still unconvinced about racial and religious freedom.

Working from a screenplay by Kemp Powers, based on his play, King brings her sensitivity as an actress (for which she won an Oscar for “If Beale Street Could Talk”) to adapting a piece that doesn’t apologize for the questions it willingly confronts within the framework of friends celebrating success. Rather than only rely on the words to tell the story, King creates a rich visual language for 1960s Miami, a city divided by race, ambition and potential. As football player Brown considers his future beyond football, he recognizes the limitations he must confront; while Malcolm X talks in a telephone booth with his wife, he remains aware of the danger he faces every day no matter the strength of his faith; as Cook lists his hits he wonders what his music could contribute; as Clay relishes stardom, he questions what role he should play.

It’s no surprise, given the strength of the material and King’s sensitive approach, that the actors soar. Kingsley Ben-Adir brings a quiet intensity to Malcolm X, a man excited about what he sees while grounded in the fears his beliefs can promote. Eli Goree makes the brash Clay a likable hero who radiates charm and confidence, Aldish Hodge quietly makes Brown a compelling figure who holds his anger, and Broadway’s Leslie Odom Jr. makes us believe in Cooke’s determination to musically express his objections. Together the actors remind us how, in every world, at every time, what divides people usually generates more headlines than what we share.

Whether or not these men actually talked about any of these issues in real time, the film reminds us what we should be discussing today. “One Night in Miami” celebrates how friends with rich minds can change worlds when we confront realities and fuel dreams. And that can begin with a conversation.

Summary: One Night in Miami

Content: High. Director Regina King's exploration of one meaningful evening in the lives of four Black icons offers many lessons for today's conversations.

Entertainment: High. King's sensitive approach to the material brings these characters to life on screen despite the material's origin on stage.

Message: High. Screenwriter Kemp Powers finds lessons to share as he imagines how these four men might have interacted.

Relevance: High. Any opportunity to learn from history can help us understand what we face today.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The movie can prompt conversation between you and your older children about how we can focus on unity rather than separation.

“One Night in Miami” runs 1 hour and 54 minutes. The film is rated R for “language throughout.” It is showing in theaters before starting to stream on Amazon Prime on Jan. 15.