Regina King makes an astonishing directorial debut with “One Night in Miami…”, a fictionalized story inspired by true events and featuring four cultural legends of the African-American community: Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke. The film imagines what might have happened during their real-life meeting on the night of February 25, 1964, when the four luminaries gathered together at the Hampton House, a motel in Miami’s Brownsville neighborhood.
Kemp Powers pens the captivating screenplay which is based on his own 2013 stage play of the same name. King approaches this tricky material with the confidence and keen senses of a seasoned director, keeping her focus on the film’s talented ensemble and pulling the very best out of them. At the same time King infuses this dialogue-heavy chamber piece with a cinematic feel, something that isn’t always easy for movies based on stage plays. Look no further than another 2020 film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, a good movie but one where I was often aware of its heavy stage roots. King doesn’t fully evade that, but she makes several small yet effective choices that ensures “One Night in Miami…” feels very much like a movie.
The film begins with a somewhat mechanical opening – four vignettes that introduces the principle characters and gives a glimpse of their struggles in the heart of the Civil Rights era. Then everything moves towards Miami Beach in 1964. Cassius Clay (played by Eli Goree), a 7-1 underdog, beats Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship with his friends, activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), in attendance. Afterwards the four retreat to the Hamilton House motel to celebrate the big win. It’s an amazing scenario, one that actually happened, although the exact details of the evening stayed with the four men.
So it goes without saying King and Powers aren’t attempting to￼ recreate that special night with pinpoint accuracy. Instead they examine where each man was at that particular point in their real lives and then pull from their unique experiences and circumstances to create a series of conversations and interactions that may not be historically precise yet are exactly the kinds of rich and textured exchanges you would envision. Just how well this approach works is one of the film’s most satisfying elements.
Each character is at a defining crossroad in their life. Cassius is the new champ but secretly has converted to Islam under the mentoring of Malcolm and is on his way to becoming Muhammad Ali. Meanwhile Malcolm’s evolving beliefs find him at odds with the Nation of Islam’s more militant leadership. Sam’s music career is thriving but he finds himself caught between making music with a strong appeal to broader audiences (which means more money) or using his voice to speak to the travails of his community. Jim has learned that fame on the football field doesn’t equal color-blind acceptance. And now he’s considering making movies, another industry with its own track record of inequality and exploitation.
Their night starts with bursts of fun, good-natured jousting especially between Sam, Jim, and Cassius who had a much “livelier” party in mind. But Malcolm has planned a night of reflection, dialogue, and vanilla ice cream. Over the course of the night the playful buddy banter gives way to philosophical discussions, clashing worldviews, and meaty debates on activism and civil rights. King keeps easing the temperature up, steadily working towards an impassioned crescendo where biting exchanges fueled by deep personal hurt takes center stage. It’s through their fascinating interplay that we learn who these men really are, and we get to quietly observe it all like flies on the wall.
Wisely, neither King or Powers set out to deify their characters. Their interests are in the men underneath the celebrity. So we not only see their big personalities but also their blemishes and internal conflicts. The four actors portraying them couldn’t be better and each bring fresh dimensions to their iconic characters. Ben-Adir makes for a mesmerizing Malcolm X, revealing a complex man burdened by belief but well aware of the heat that’s coming his way. It’s a tricky role that tackles Malcolm’s self-righteousness but also his clear-eyed conviction. Ben-Adir nails it.
Leslie Odom Jr. of “Hamilton” fame gets another chance to showcase his singing chops. He also deftly brings out the layers in Cooke whose smooth, confident exterior conceals a whirlwind of contradiction inside. Odom Jr. has some powerful moments. Playing Jim Brown, Aldis Hodge is easily the most subdued of the four but his presence is always felt and he speaks volumes through subtle gestures and cutting expressions. And when he does speak Hodge brings a quiet intensity that you can’t turn away from. Eli Goree is the most playful as Cassius Clay, but he tempers his performance and keeps it from becoming a caricature. And he too brings an emotional weight to his character when the story calls for it.
Regina King got her feet wet directing television shows over the last several years. “One Night in Miami…” sees her enter the feature film space as a force. We already know she’s an eminently talented actress with an Oscar to prove it. But it’s always exciting to see a first-time director deliver on this level. And it’s just as exciting to watch a well-cast ensemble work with such charisma and verve to bring a pretty remarkable story to life. It takes the movie a few minutes to get going, but once it hits its sweet-spot it makes for some pretty riveting viewing. “One Night in Miami…” is out now in a limited theatrical release and will release on Prime Video on January 15th, 2021.
VERDICT – 4 STARS