Regina King is better known for being in front of the camera, receiving a multitude of nominations, not to mention the award wins for her consistently brilliant work. She is, however, no stranger when it comes to directing. With 14, now 15, credits to her name, it is far from surprising that the film being touted as her feature debut is as accomplished as it is. For it, she chose to transpose Kemp Powers’ (here adapting his own stage play for the screen) One Night in Miami.
The premise is simple: On February 25 1964, 22-year-old Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) beat Sonny Liston (Aaron D. Alexander) to become the Heavyweight Champion of the World. In the crowd sits Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and, providing ringside commentary, Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). What it presupposes is that these four men meet after the fight and hole up in a room at the Hampton House Motel to discuss life, love and politics in an already changing world, during the year that would also see Clay’s transition to Islam, the Civil Rights Act signed into law, the Harlem race riots and, tragically, the murder of Sam Cooke.
Despite the title, action begins in 1963 and Clay’s fight against Henry Cooper, and from there each character is afforded their own scene to give the audience some indication where they were prior to the night in Miami. Pedants (guilty) may note that Cooke’s Johnny Carson appearance was eighteen days prior to the 25 February but is presented as happening after… However, any liberties taken with the timeline makes little difference as King adds the creative flourishes necessary to make a 90-minute one act play into a film, and ultimately it is the conversations held within that room which are the integral part. Yes, the majority takes place in the one location but it never feels confined as space is created with the camera constantly moving, through the editing, and those performances…
Not to put too fine a point on it, they are all impeccable. Hodges – close to being ubiquitous following a steady run of work released this year – slows his speech, clenches the jaw, and embodies Brown with a deadpan, quiet intelligence while Odom Jr. sings Cooke almost pitch perfect (second only to the man himself). He’s the only cast member wearing a make-up prosthetic but one hopes it was for vocal/breathing purposes as it does prove a little distracting at times. Goree has Clay’s inflection and physical prowess down pat, not to mention a bounding, almost childlike energy.
Which leaves the standout, British actor Ben-Adir as Malcolm X. His performance is exceptional. Calming, erudite, with flashes of the righteous anger that punctuated the man’s public speeches and press conferences yet, this is a more emotionally vulnerable version seen here. Paranoid about his position as he contemplates a future without the Nation of Islam, and about being followed. He’s worried that his days are numbered as he rushes to finish his autobiography and leave behind his story in his own words. He is often behind his expensive camera taking photos of his friends, his brothers. Positioned on the outside of the group but as Clay states at one point, “You’re our director.”
In the room, they listen to music, eat ice-cream – vanilla, an allusion made by Brother Malcolm to Brown and Cooke’s love of white women – and share; discussing how the world should change, what each of them should be doing for the cause and how to ‘weaponise’ their respective attributes and push through the struggle; speaking truth to power.
This celebration of four gifted Black men does not pander to mythology or idolatrise, but instead presents reflections of the men at the height of their notoriety (note the mirrors dotted around the place) and not mere impersonation. The dialogue is punchy and resonant as they debate, argue, laugh and cry – the personification of the competing voices within the civil rights movement (and pre-cursors of the Black Power movement). It is urgent discourse – and devastatingly all too relevant today – yet filled with depth and humour.
As a piece of film, One Night in Miami doesn’t reinvent the wheel in terms of structure or language but there are a number of beautiful shots courtesy of Tami Reiker’s cinematography which linger in the mind after the credits have rolled. The musical segments give Odom Jr. more time to shine with the arrangements and atmospheric score courtesy of the immense talent of maestro Terence Blanchard. By the time Cooke’s final number – A Change is Gonna Come – comes around, one cannot help but be moved to tears.
Clearly, some room should be left on Ms. King’s mantle for a few more gold and silver trophies following this assured and stylish snapshot of a momentous meeting in time. It delivers on multiple levels, encompassing Black/American history, culture and music – pay attention you may learn something – and contains four utterly captivating performances. As somebody who missed the play’s 2016 run at The Donmar this incredible film more than makes up for it.
One Night in Miami Premieres on Amazon Prime January 15th 2021