By Leah Greenblatt
September 10, 2020 at 03:34 PM EDT
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PATTI PERRET/Amazon Studios

If it were a screenwriter's pitch, it would sound like pure fantasy: four towering icons of the 20th century, in one room, for one night. But it did actually happen, on a humid February evening in in Miami 1964, when a 22-year-old Cassius Clay (not yet Muhammad Ali) took the world heavyweight championship against Sonny Liston, and brought along three of his closest friends for support and celebration.

That those men — Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X, soul singer Sam Cooke, and football superstar Jim Brown — just happened, like him, to be burgeoning legends is the subject of Oscar-winning actress Regina King's feature directing debut, which bows this week at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals: a vibrant, galvanizing drama whose surreal circumstances soon fall away to reveal an extraordinarily human story.

Kemp Powers' script is an adaptation of his own acclaimed 2013 play of the same name, and its opening scenes do have the stagy contours of theater, heavy on exposition and broad outlines: Clay (Eli Goree) the preening butterfly recently brought low by a knockout punch in London, Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) tanking a show at the lily-white Copacabana, Brown (Aldis Hodge) encountering an ugly case of velvet-gloved racism in his own backyard, and X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) at home in Detroit, trying to reassure his justifiably anxious wife that they'll be alright.

Those humiliations and downturns are all fodder, though, for what's to come: nearly two hours in which the foursome tease and argue and confess, parrying ideas about politics and Blackness and personal responsibility with an electricity that conducts through nearly every scene.

Goree (Ballers), possibly the least known of the four main actors here, brings a gorgeous physicality to Clay — he can't pass a mirror without telling himself how pretty he looks — but a deeper schism too, as a man struggling with whether or not to fully commit his Muslim faith. As Brown, Hodge (TV's Underground, The Invisible Man) offers a mellower presence — driven least, perhaps, by ideology (though hardly an indifferent one; his confrontation with X in the film's final third is almost disconcertingly calm, but it leaves scorch marks).

Hamilton star Odom struts in as Cooke, a proud man with appetites nearly as prodigious as his talents. He wants it all — the girls, the glamor, the money, the next stiff drink. But he's haunted, too, by the ceilings he can't crack, a kind of acceptance white America will never offer him, and X is more than ready to press his finger to that wound.

Maybe in part because it's his own shabby motel room they're in — or because the fervency of his beliefs is so complete — Ben-Adir's Malcolm becomes the wheel the story turns on. A British actor mostly known for U.K. television and theater, Ben-Adir is a revelation here, parsing the many contradictions of an endlessly complicated man with a sensitivity that seems almost supernatural.

If Miami is, in the end, a movie of ideas, King still makes it all look almost impossibly lush: a swooningly costumed mid-'60s time capsule, soaked in Sunshine State atmosphere. But she never forfeits the momentous substance of her message for style. (If there were ever an argument for actors directing actors, this is it.) In extrapolating the mysteries of a night we'll never fully know, she finds something that may not be strictly true to lived history, but possibly even richer: a quintessentially American tale; profane, profound, and beautiful. A-

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