The best sequence in "One Night in Miami" comes at the end, and it is not a coincidence that it's a montage of images with no dialogue.
The movie is based on a play by Kemp Powers, but dialogue is a real hang-up in "One Night," a fictitious imagining of conversations from the (real) 1964 night when luminaries Jim Brown, Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke and Malcolm X met in a Miami hotel room. (One thing the movie portrays is Clay pledging to become a Muslim, which would lead to him being known as Muhammad Ali — which, of course, did happen.)
It would not be easy to dream up dialogue for these characters, words that need to sound like those an actual person would use and, on the other hand, must befit four men who were hugely famous and influential. I'm not sure how Powers could finesse that dichotomy, but one way not to do it is to have football star Brown list his accomplishments to the other men, as if he's in a job interview, not a chat. Throughout the movie, as the men reel off information for the benefit of moviegoers instead of each other, they sound less like conversationalists and more like they're interviewing each other for biographies they plan to write as soon as they get out of this midcentury Miami hotel.
Another person who took on a complex job is director Regina King; adapting a piece from the inherently surreal world of theater to the more literal medium of film isn't easy. King does what she can to reduce the claustrophobia of "One Night," setting some of the two-person exchanges in, for instance, an automobile parked in the hotel lot, but the movie still feels very much like a play where everyone enters and exits the stage at the playwright's behest, picking up lines when the script tells them it's their turn.
The encouraging news for King fans is that she does great work with her fellow actors. Kingsley Ben-Adir gets the fieriest role, Malcolm X, but the actor remains focused on Malcolm's humanity so the character emerges as a man, not a Legend. His temperamental opposite is Leslie Odom Jr.'s Cooke, the quietest of the four. That's a smart balance because it reminds us how tough it would be to get a word in edgewise in this group of noted talkers. It underscores that Cooke did most of his communicating not with speech but with song.
Lip-syncing to recordings made by another is yet another tricky task for an artist, but Odom's work is precise and graceful as he performs Cooke classics, another reminder that when the "One Night in Miami" actors aren't forced to make sense of awkward dialogue, this movie sings.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
One Night in Miami
⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rating: R for language.
Theater: In theaters, streaming on Amazon.com Jan. 15.