There are directorial debuts that reveal the newborn cineaste to be someone who thinks and feels in images, a visionary who has just been searching for an outlet. One Night in Miami..., the first film directed by the endlessly reliable character actor Regina King, is not one of these. But it is a very promising debut anyway; in its own way, as promising as debuts get. For what it demonstrates is a certain level of unflappable resolve: handed a project that almost certainly was not going to end up better than this and had several potential ways to go extremely bad, King has kept things on track so smoothly that it never even looks like it took work to get the film up to the level it reaches. Now, this level is "well-built Oscarbait", and no better; but then again, better than bad Oscarbait.

The film is an adaptation of a play, with Kemp Powers adapting his own celebrated 2013 script, and this is the point on which every thing else needs to be balanced. Plays don't always make good movies; hell, they don't usually make good movies. We need not even leave the world of 2020 Oscarbait about famous African-American singers to trip over the clumsy, artless Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which did almost everything wrong that can crop up on the trip from stage to screen. One Night in Miami... isn't faultless - it has a somewhat clunky approach to "opening up" the material - but for a first-timer, King does a pretty great job of avoiding the claustrophobic staginess or mannered acting that can often afflict films of this sort. At least, mannered acting that doesn't work for the story.

The night in Miami is 25 February, 1964, when the 22-year-old African-American boxer still going by the name Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) won a bout against Sonny Liston in an upset, winning the heavyweight championship belt as a result. Afterwards, he celebrated in a hotel room with his mentor Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), and friends Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), a football player making a push into film actor, and pioneering soul musician Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.). What happened in that room that night is not a matter of public record, though barely more than one week later, Clay publicly announced his membership in the Nation of Islam and his intent to change his name to Muhammad Ali, while two days after that, Malcolm publicly renounced the NOI, over his concerns that it was not capable of serving as the vehicle for political change that he had hoped for. One Night in Miami... is a "what if?" scenario, trying to tease out how the conversation of that evening might have led to those two events, as well as further (and less dramatic) developments in Brown and Cooke's lives.

So the first challenge the film faces: bringing to life a cluster of very famous people in a way that will neither make a mockery of their public personae - extremely well-known and idiosyncratic personae, in the case of Ali and Malcolm X - nor fall into the tedious trap of banal mimicry. This challenge, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the film aces. All four of the lead actors are quite good at playing, simultaneously, a elevated idea of who these four people are, as well as four human men hanging out and chatting in a room together. The latter mode is almost invariably more rewarding, because of the second challenge: all the speechifying. Given the individuals in question and the end point the film is aiming towards, it's no surprise at all that Kemp's idea for what happened in that hotel room involves a whole lot of discussion of matters of political theory, and this only sometimes works. There's a line between "real people thinking through complicated issues out loud" and "dramatic characters loudly projecting the themes of the piece towards the back row of the theater", and One Night in Miami... dances all over both sides of that line.

What keeps it from tipping over into talky, declamatory mush is how the actors manage their way around the material, each of them using a different strategy. My favorite is Hodge, who takes the straightforward and blunt route of simply underplaying everything: he mutters under his breath, talks to the other actors in a register that suggests he expects that they'll move closer to him if they need to hear more clearly, and generally turns this all into a strategy for portraying Brown as somewhat tetchier than the rest, with little patience for their grand-scale philosophy (this is, to be sure, the strategy the play itself seems to suggest). Goree leans into Ali's huge personality and tendency towards verbal showboating, using it as a way to get through the most over-written lines and implying that his character has a certain nervous lack of self-certainty (Clay was the youngest of the four men by six years - an epoch when you are 22) that he's deliberately blowing through by play-acting braggadocio and self-confidence. Ben-Adir goes the opposite route, refusing to draw on any of Malcolm X's familiar speaking rhythms and physical bearing, except in very particular, privileged moments where the interpersonal conflicts can be best sharpened by doing this, and it always feels like a choice the character is making, rather than the actor; he otherwise treats Malcolm as a bit tired and pessimistic, a more cautious and quiet figure than we would expect from midcentury America's most legendary radical. Odom has probably the easiest part, with Cooke likely having the lowest profile of the four men (sure, we've all heard his songs; but I'm pretty certain I've never heard him talk), and he consequently takes the least-interesting route through the script; he's also the only one who I ever got delivering lines in a big theatrical register that makes them feel over-written, though mostly he's just doing exactly what the role requires, and reacting sharply and with slightly malicious glee to Ben-Adir (the conflict between Cooke and Malcolm X, with the latter thinking that the former is a sell-out to White America, is the most persistent in the film).

And to get back to where I started: King is doing a whole lot to keep this from feeling too talky and overly earnest. Her approach to the material is to treat it with a very languid, casual tone; this gets established early on, in somewhat longish introductory scenes for each character that I'm fairly certain were added for the movie, and which do somewhat clutter up the script, making the movie feel like it hasn't figured out how to get started. But King treats these shaggy add-ons as hang-out moments, naturalistic little snapshots for us to see the characters establish their own rhythms before she adds them together. And then when she adds them together, the shagginess and hang-out feeling remains. This is a godsend for material that's always right on the verge of turning into a lecture; the actors are made to stay loose, and the way that Tami Reiker's camera moves through the hotel room is ragged enough that the film mostly avoids the feeling that we're stuck in one location for two hours. In essence, she is messing up a slightly too pristine script, giving it some vitality at the cost of some precision. It's a worthwhile trade-off; in a year where far too many prestige pictures and awards hopefuls have been yawning drags, One Night in Miami... manages to stand out as, like, an actual movie that's interesting to watch.