Synopsis – One Night in Miami is a fictional account of one incredible night where icons Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown gathered discussing their roles in the civil rights movement and cultural upheaval of the 60s.
My Take – After garnering an Oscar for her supporting role in If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), and an Emmy for her role as Angela Abar / Sister Night in HBO‘s Watchmen, it was only natural that Regina King would move on to her make feature directorial debut. However what’s surprising is the subject matter, which sees her teaming up with playwright Kemp Powers to adapt his own stage play.
Apparently back in 1964, American icons Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown hung out with Cassius Clay, but, what did they talk about? No one knows. Hence, the film imagines a vigorous conversation about success, celebrity, responsibility and history in one unforgettable evening that would set the course of all of their lives.
While the heavy subject matter might sound off putting for some, but anchored by four near-flawless performances, it turns into one of the most electrifying and downright fun historical dramas to come out of Hollywood in years. In lesser hands, the claustrophobia would constrain a filmmaker, but King’s directorial debut is dynamite, turning an intimate chamber piece into an electric proving ground.
She laces the space with symbolism, filming the men behind wooden bars to foreshadow the murder of Cooke in December 1964 and the assassination of Malcolm X in February 1965. The film has the feel of theater, focusing on conversation and subtle power dynamics rather than a lot of movement and action. But some nimble staging and the stunning direction makes the film a complete awards contender that’s more than worth of every bit of praise it garners.
The story is set in 1964, on February 25, the night when Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) defeated Sonny Liston (Aaron D. Alexander) for the heavyweight boxing championship of the world in Miami Beach, Florida. To celebrate, he gathers with NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) in a motel located in the ratty area of Miami and guarded by the Nation of Islam security. While Cooke, Brown, and Clay think they are going to toast in a room full of booze and girls, but Malcolm informs them that all he has to offer is some Vanilla ice cream.
All leading to some side-eyes and eventually some heated words as Malcolm is going at Cooke for not using his celebrity status enough to address the black movement, Clay being conflicted about becoming a Muslim, and though Brown tries to be the peacekeeper he too voices his concern that he’s just being a tool for white football owners.
The discussions are wide-ranging and rooted in who these four men are, and the particular challenges they face as Black professional athletes, performers, and leaders in a rapidly changing America. There’s pressure to cater to white audiences, and there’s insidious prejudice rooted in color-ism. There’s the threat of police violence directed at them simply for being Black men. And there’s religious identity, as well as the respectability politics that can get tied up with how, and who, you worship.
While history remembers them for their achievements, the film skillfully grounds them in their failures, both large and small. In vignettes ranging from wry to devastating, each man paints his relationship to whiteness, and to Blackness.
With the weight of this enormous history in mind, first-time feature director Regina King spins a tale of social change and the people who catalyze it. Screenwriter Kemp Powers bases the script on his own 2013 play, and his screenplay is surprisingly engaging as it imagines the discourse.
Though not particularly flashy, the film is able to demand and capture our attention through its masterful dialogue and pitch-perfect acting. Though the first half hour of the film is admittedly a little slow, but soon things pick up, continue to build and never stop till the end credits roll in.
The film’s greatest strength is having Regina King at the helm as director. You need someone with a keen understanding of performances and subtleties to pull off a film like this, and King has shown time and again in her career that she always performs at the highest caliber. What director King does is elevate Powers‘ work into the film form with rich locations and an atmosphere that matches the powerful performances.
Plays can be notoriously difficult to adapt for the screen, even for the most experienced of directors, but, here, King’s direction and staging turns into one of the best stage-to-screen films ever made. Here, director King treats the apartment like a moving stage, enticing audiences into its space with the warm tones of the decor and the characters’ costumes.
She places the audience in the middle of riveting conversations between some of American history’s greatest icons, and stands beside each of them in private moments of overpowering doubt. And whether the foursome are together or apart, the film sustains its energy and tension consistently, thanks in large part to Tariq Anwar’s precise editing and cinematographer Tami Reiker, who keep a keen eye on which character’s energy drives each beat, and whose perspective matters most in a given moment.
Most surprisingly, the film is unapologetic in its depiction of Islam, specifically African-American Islam, as a philosophy where Black Muslims like Malcolm and Clay seek peaceful comfort, even as it guides their political struggles.
As I mentioned above, the cast is exceptional all around. However, my favorite of the lot is Kingsley Ben-Adir, who plays the film’s most prominent figure. Though comparison to Denzel Washington’s performance are inevitable, Ben-Adir makes the role his own, in a turn that’s equal parts heartbreaking, endearing, and magnetic. Equally remarkable is Leslie Odom Jr. who presents a Cooke whose inner conflict is barely papered over by high spirits, a man of substance trying hard to be superficial, but failing.
Eli Goree is also notable in a role that could have easily skated on the surface of a good imitation, but instead, he dials it up with spot-on speech and mannerisms. Aldis Hodge brings complete coolness and gravity, remaining the calm, steady voice of reason as Jim Brown. In supporting roles, Lance Reddick, Christian Magby and Joaquina Kalukango are also good. On the whole, ‘One Night in Miami’ is a triumphant directorial debut from Regina King, that is not only just entertaining and provocative but also a stunning portrait of four American icons.
Directed – Regina King
Rated – R
Run Time – 114 minutes