Produced by: Jess Wu Calder, Keith Calder, Jody Klein
Directed by: Regina King
Starring: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr.
Runtime: 110 minutes
Based on historical events that occurred on 25 February 1964 and a stage play written by Kemp Powers (who also pens the screenplay), One Night in Miami is a fictionalized account of a meeting that a 22-year-old boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) had with then Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Hall of fame NFL fullback Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) after defeating Sonny Liston in a match.
The film follows a catch-up the friends had in a motel room at the Hampton House in Miami’s Black Brownsville neighborhood. What was thought to be an epic celebration of Clay’s surprise victory over Liston becomes a transformative discussion about politics, religion, the state of the nation they live in and the burdens they carry as successful black men during the civil rights movement. Though nobody knows what was really said behind the walls of the motel room (the only thing that has been confirmed is that they ate vanilla ice-cream), the dialogue between them is said to have been a pivotal moment for the men who were at a crossroads.
This exciting tale serves as four-time Emmy recipient and Academy Award & Golden Globe winner Regina king’s feature-film directorial debut. While she is mostly known for her work as an actress, she is not a rookie in this field as she has experience directing episodes for popular television shows like Insecure, Being Mary Jane, Scandal & This is Us, to name a few. The question left to answer is whether this film honours these iconic figures in American history and successfully explores what drove them to be great.
- Like many of her performances in front of the camera, King’s directorial effort takes command of the production and works extremely well with the resources she has. She could have easily fallen into the trap of a stage-to-film conversion but she does much more with the limited space the story provides. Unlike Denzel Washington’s efforts in Fences, King was able to get great shots that make the setting intimate and personal whilst keeping the characters in the frame which allows the audience to get engaged in the thought-provoking conversation that flows extremely well.
- Kemp Powers’ script is phenomenal despite how simple the premise is. It is extremely believable and effortlessly avoids being a gaudy caricature of the people and the events and covers all possibilities based on what was happening in the men’s lives and career. The dialogue doesn’t come off as preachy but rather it is relatable, sharp, witty and in its critical moments, it is stimulating and leaves a lot of room for reflection.
- Without the right cast, the script would have meant nothing. The main challenge surrounding this film was finding the right actors who looked like the well-photographed and documented icons and were also able to embody them. King and the crew made the smart decision to use lesser-known actors making the experience more immersive. This is an inspired decision in the case of Cassius Clay who we all know as Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, who have been played by two of the biggest names in Hollywood Will Smith and Denzel Washington respectively in the Ali bio pic and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. Eli Goree steps into the shoes of Clay and is able to portray his physicality well in the boxing sequences and in the film’s quiet moments (which is the majority of it) captures his charm and arrogance and his distinct accent and method of articulation without overdoing it. Kingsley Ben-Adir probably has the most difficult role to play as Malcolm X. He passes the test with flying colours as he portrays a vulnerable yet composed version of Malcolm who is at a point he can no longer carry the torch and seeks to use this opportunity to challenge his friends to reevaluate their roles in the public eye with their clean-cut persona’s that are devoid of controversy and find a way to use their skills and influence to elevate the civil rights movement.
- Aldis Hodge emanates a calm and cool yet powerful presence as the record-breaking Cleveland Browns fullback Jim Brown, a man who despite tearing up the NFL still deals with the realities of how little black humanity matters to the white American outside the realm of sports and entertainment. He bounces of everybody extremely well and at key points of the dialogues offers a pragmatic view of the current situation. The best performer in my opinion goes to Leslie Odom Jr. who portrays soul singer Sam Cooke, a successful artist who is unwilling to weaponize his music to tackle social issues and caters to both audiences with ‘safe’ and ‘commercial’ music, a trait that puts him in direct conflict with Malcolm X. Odom Jr. has fun flexing his vocal cords and elevates the film to new heights with his rendition of the Cooke’s songs like “Chain Gang” and his civil rights anthem “Change is going to come”.
- The film’s biggest achievement is its ability to humanize some of the greatest icons in Black American history, who were bigger than life characters with an impenetrable aura. When the film strips them down to their core we can see these figures are black men with desires and insecurities and guys who are simply friends that want the best for each other. In a weird way, it allows the audience to see themselves in these characters and relate to them more than any portrayal we may have seen in other films.
- It’s very to tough to point out the film’s flaws, but some may feel that King may have played it a bit safe with her directorial debut, but I would argue that when it has done what it needs to do it really doesn’t need to make a grand statement or contain a crazy set-piece to make One Night in Miami a memorable movie.
One Night in Miami is a simple but extremely effective tale centered on thought-provoking themes that are still relevant today. The movie is carried to greatness with Regina King’s direction, Kemp Powers’ amazing screenplay, and wonderful performances from a talented cast that perfectly embodies and humanizes some of black America’s greatest icons. A must watch.
One Night in Miami is now streaming on Amazon Prime