One Night in Miami, an emotional journey presented to us by first-time director Regina King, gathers together four of Black American history’s most prominent figures in a hotel room for one night only. The film's plot follows the men — the boxing champion formerly known as Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), musician Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), football player Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) — as they discuss the harsh reality of being Black and excellent in a white supremacist world. The film is raw and heartbreaking, but it's also an important reminder that Malcolm X was very, very fine.
Is it appropriate to thirst over political icons who have shaped the very fabric of our society? I would argue that yes, it absolutely is appropriate. Of course, the contributions that X made to the civil rights of Black people in the United States should never be understated; while many would have you believe that he was the foil to more "peaceful" civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the movement was equally fueled by X's unbridled fiery castigation of white supremacy. But being impactful and being hot don't have to be mutually exclusive. Even as X was moving hearts, opening minds, and inspiring cultural change, he was simultaneously sparking other feelings and thoughts.
I'm not going to mince any words here: Malcolm X was sexy. There's a reason why the Black Twitter discussion on the sacred December 21 Solstice saw many of us using our powers to go back in time just so we could have a chance at a special encounter with him. Just look at the material! X is said to have stood at an appealing six feet, four inches, and notably spent much of his adult life wearing tailored suits. He possessed a natural charm, flashed his pearly whites during impassioned speeches, and even cracked frequent jokes. X also developed a healthy appetite for literature during his 10-year prison stint, and was able to spur entire crowds to action with just a few words.
Additionally, the activist was husband to Betty Shabazz and proud girl dad to his six daughters, relationships that made him fiercely protective of the Black women around him. Who could ever forget the genuine conviction in his voice when he decried the continued disrespect and abuse of Black women in that viral and forever relevant 1962 speech? Couldn’t be me!
I would be remiss to talk about depictions of Malcolm X in film without first paying homage to Spike Lee's Malcolm X. Denzel Washington famously starred in the Spike Lee joint as the outspoken civil rights leader, portraying X from his nascent days as a petty thief all the way to his untimely death in 1965. Washington is widely considered one of the OG Black hotties of Hollywood, and the 1992 biographical drama undoubtedly helped cement that status. Sporting that trademark shock of natural red hair, crooked white smile, and uninhibited confidence, Washington delivered a powerful take on X's story. And despite not really looking like X (Washington is several shades darker and several inches shorter), he looked really good doing it.
Nigel Thatch is another actor who took up the role of X in Ava DuVernay's Selma. His portrayal may provide the closest physical similarity to the late great icon we have on screen. The film focuses more on King Jr., (played by David Oyelowo) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's historic Selma march, but X shows up to do his part and leaves quite the impression. After years of opposing King's pacifist methods towards civil rights, X offers to aid the work of the SCLC by moving the needle so far left that white people would have no choice but to meet King somewhere in the middle as allies. Guess what? He was fine, too.
The film adaptation of One Night in Miami, penned by Kemp Powers, also unintentionally does the work of punctuating X's attractiveness. Set in 1964, the same year that Clay became the heavyweight champion of the world (and changed his name to Muhammad Ali) and a year before Malcolm X was assassinated, Ben-Adir's portrayal artfully brings to life the activist's perpetual anxiety about his inevitable murder.
In One Night in Miami, X is desperate and heartbroken about the trajectory of his career, the safety of his family, and the welfare of his community. The film finds X teetering dangerously close to the edge of an emotional breakdown. From the activist’s nervous tick (hitching up his signature glasses) to his gangly gait to his stutter in moments of passion, Ben-Adir accurately channels X from start to finish. Just as importantly, he captures the overwhelmingly attractive aura of the Black icon, even in the fragility of his last days. His X is so fully dedicated to the well-being of the Black community that it literally reduces him to tears — a scene which personally had me swooning in my seat (don't act like you're not turned on by vulnerability).
Let’s get this out of the way before anyone starts with the "historical accuracy" spiel: One Night in Miami's X is not played by a Black American. Ben-Adir (High Fidelity, The OA) is British-born and bred, complete with a proper English accent, but I fully agree with my co-worker Kathleen Newman-Bremang's conclusion that his portrayal is nonetheless among the best in film history. Since the movie first premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, King has been adamant that Ben-Adir was the right pick for the role, and she's right. Ben-Adir's raw performance is wholly inspired by the man himself. Though he's fully aware of the controversy surrounding his casting, Ben-Adir hopes that his close study of X and the resulting onscreen performance will be a transformative experience for everyone watching.
X's zeal for using his voice as an agent of change is exactly why so many of us are still drawn to him almost 60 years after his death. The Malcolm X that we remember, honor, and thirst after today was radically unrelenting in his takedown of white supremacy. He worked tirelessly to promote Black power and pride. He protected Black women and, when he learned that the organization that he'd devoted his life to did not, publicly pivoted to a different path. I don't know about you, but that's my type.
One Night in Miami is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.