Directed by Regina King
Written by Kemp Powers
One Night in Miami is symbolic and timely for a number of reasons. With the recent protests surrounding Black Lives Matter in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police in the summer of 2020, and the #MeToo movement that has been ongoing for the last few years, a female directed film about four African American luminaries from the first Civil Rights movement in the 1960s may seem timely, but in fact it’s been a very long time coming. Regina King, whose long, successful career has hit a second gear after winning the Academy Award for If Beale Street Could Talk, gets the opportunity to direct for the first time, and she comes onto the scene with a bang with a film that shows touches of polish and experience that likely comes from her years of experience in the industry and having a message, and finally getting a voice to express it.
The titular One Night in Miami comes after Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) defeats Sonny Liston for the heavyweight boxing title. In celebration, he has decided to go back to Hampton House where his friend, mentor and brother Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) is staying. Joining them to celebrate are fellow African American superstars singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and footballer Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). Perhaps not the happening, raging party you might expect after a career defining victory, the small get together forces the quartet to grapple with the current social climate and the responsibility of the men in the room to use their platform to push for social change in a time where their white fans will certainly chastise them for doing so.
As far as debut films goes, One Night in Miami is not particularly flashy in terms of filmmaking technique, but as with her on screen presence in her career, Regina King manages to bring a grace and deft handling of the characters and themes throughout. Such a single setting film lends itself to a lack of cinematic appeal, but King in conjunction with Kemp Powers, who adapts his own play, manage to create enough change of setting and interesting dynamics throughout that it never feels stale or static. The discussion is ever evolving, with characters in and out of the room, and in and out of the important discussions being held. For what amounts to four guys talking in a room, the two hour runtime manages to fly by, which is no small feat.
The charisma of the ensemble, and variety of performances really helps keep the film moving and entertaining throughout. The cast is largely unknown to me. Leslie Odom Jr., known for his role in the smash Broadway hit Hamilton is likely the most noteworthy, but it was Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X who really shines above the rest here. The dynamic is essential between the group and Ben-Adir works as the glue. Eli Goree also turns in a phenomenal performance which may be better described as a really tremendous imitation of Muhammad Ali than a masterclass in acting, but nonetheless it is extremely effective and definitely entertaining. The ensemble deliver on the verve and passion necessary to make a film like this work.
Mileage may vary on this film in how effective you find it. I myself struggled from time to time, but the highs of the film make it something I would easily recommend. It doesn’t seem particularly exciting, but the conversations and debates are full of energy and are effectively thought provoking. The cache of emotion that King manages to store up throughout the film, really come to an emotionally charged rendition of Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”. Anyone with a knowledge of Cooke and his career might have seen it coming, but as a massive Cooke fan myself, I was still incredibly moved by the moment, bringing to a head everything the film tackled. It’s not just about using his platform to give his people a voice, to be heard. It’s not just about joining the movement itself. From an inward reflection, he is finally able to grapple with his own position in history, both as a black man in America and as participant of history. We are all participants in our own time in history. How will we grapple with our own participation?