It's a dull party when Malcolm X invites Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Cassius Clay to his hotel room for talk and vanilla ice cream after Clay wins the heavyweight boxing championship on Feb. 25, 1964, in Miami.
But the dramatic intensity builds to a knockout punch in director Regina King and writer Kemp Powers' "One Night in Miami," showing on Amazon Prime.
The four really did get together after Clay beat Sonny Liston in Miami to take the heavyweight crown at age 22.
But there's little historical record of what they said to each other. Powers, who wrote the screenplay based on his play, imagines an impassioned debate over black civil rights.
A raging dispute between the popular soul singer Cooke and the Black Muslim leader Malcolm brings the film's dramatic climax.
Malcolm accuses Cooke of pandering to white popular tastes and not stirring protest with his music. Cooke defends himself, pointing out that his song-publishing and recording company increases opportunities for black artists.
Brown and Clay - soon to announce his membership in the Nation of Islam and his name change to Muhammad Ali - also express the ambiguities of black fame.
Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm, Eli Goree as Clay/Ali, Aldis Hodge as Brown and Leslie Odom Jr. as Cooke raise the film above an almost fatal profusion of flaws.
After a sputtering, aimless start, the gathering at Malcolm's room brings focus and momentum for a rousing finish. What risks terminal dullness succeeds like a well-made play.
Goree's portrayal of Clay/Ali is uncannily accurate, down to the register of the fighter's famous voice. At times, Goree's too flamboyant, edging toward caricature. He captures Ali's ebullient spirit, with a dose of implausible self-reflection. His increasing qualms about Muslim life make his immediate conversion unconvincing, countering Clay's historical enthusiasm.
As the tormented, introspective Malcolm, Ben-Adir delivers the film's defining role. Alienated from Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad, he's planning to leave and form his own organization. Ben-Adir portrays Malcolm as a black American Hamlet, torn between intellectual rationality and emotional turmoil.
The film implies that Muhammad conspired with the FBI in Malcolm's assassination almost exactly a year later. Increasingly paranoid, Malcolm keeps glancing at shadowy figures whom he believes are following him.
In one of the film's dramatic highlights, he's shown fleeing with his family when their home is firebombed.
The film in one of its most glaring inaccuracies implies that Ali followed Malcolm, when the boxer turned against his mentor and remained loyal to the Nation of Islam founder.
Known for his stunning portrayal of Aaron Burr in "Hamilton," Odom gives the most in-depth performance. His Cooke ranges from hip show-biz self-indulgence - he, in contrast to Malcolm stays at the ritzy Fontainebleau - to reflective self-doubt.
Suggesting that Cooke went on to greater success, the movie neglects to mention his death less than a year later in a sordid murder at a seedy Los Angeles motel.
Hodge as Brown gives the most conventional performance, showing signs of the violence that has marred Brown's career. He expresses Brown's primitive attitudes toward women that match his history of sexual abuse.
All of the talk of black dignity clashes with the group's dehumanization of Liston. Clay taunts Liston as an ugly bear, and Malcolm and the others also view the fighter as a brutal beast.
While several references are made to contemporary events - Clay's meeting with the Beatles in Miami a short time before the fight, the killing of four young girls in the Birmingham Church bombing - no mention is made of Martin Luther King and his civil rights movement, despite its prominence.
Outside of the controlled space of the hotel room, King's direction is uneven. The play is enlivened by secondary performances by Beau Bridges as a family friend of Brown who shockingly displays his racism, Michael Imperioli as a bizarrely ebullient Angelo Dundee, Ali's manager, and Lance Reddick as a menacing Black Muslim bodyguard.
The movie takes even more historical liberties than Aaron Sorkin's Netflix production "The Trial of the Chicago 7." The two films, both streaming after limited theatrical runs, give alternating visions of 1960s protest movements.
"One Night in Miami" is similarly flawed, but more coherent dramatically. At the end of the film, Odom's stirring performance of Cooke's anthem "A Change Is Gonna Come" renews the promise of the '60s.