Film Review: One Night in Miami…
One Night in Miami…
Director: Regina King
In Theaters 01.08
Steaming on Amazon Prime 01.15
The past year has been an incredible one for female directors, with a record number of Hollywood films directed by women. It’s also, of course, been a year when civil rights issues—both in terms of the history of the movement and how far we still have to go—have been at the forefront of our thoughts and discussions. One Night in Miami is a fictionalized account of an actual meeting between Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay, soon to be known as Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.), in a Miami hotel room in February 1964, celebrating Ali’s surprise title win over Sonny Liston. These icons get together for what is ostensibly a party, but is in reality a serious discussion orchestrated by Macolm, who wants to address their responsibilities as successful Black men with a voice. Malcolm is working with Cassius on his conversion to Islam, and on the verge of a major crossroads of his own, is about to go public with a decision that will have far-reaching consequences.
Director Regina King, best known these days for her Oscar-winning performance in If Beale Street Could Talk and her starring role in Watchmen on HBO, directs from a screenplay by Kemp Powers (Soul), based on his own award-winning play. The two of them do an impressive job opening things up from stage to screen, making it one of the most cinematic stage adaptations since Ron Howard‘s Frost/Nixon. The heart of the film is still in the dialogue between these men, but they’ve opened it up to include bookend sequences, multiple locations and flashbacks that obviously couldn’t be done onstage. King doesn’t come across as a young director, approaching the film with a smooth self-assurance and expert sense of pacing, not to mention a tremendous skill for working with actors that no doubt comes from a lifetime of being one.
Ben-Adir, who has previously played Barack Obama in The Comey Rule, has big shoes to fill as Malcolm X, because it’s hard for anyone to follow Denzel Washington‘s definitive turn in the role. But Ben-Adir does a commendable job, making the role his own and playing Malcom as a complex and driven man with a steady moral compass, and it would be the standout performance if it wasn’t for Odom. The Hamilton star is astounding as Cooke, eerily echoing one of the greatest American singing voices of all time with uncanny accuracy, and powerfully portraying the frustrations and battles, both interior and exterior, of this groundbreaking figure. I’m going to go on the record with the prediction that he wins an Oscar for this performance.
Goree (Riverdale) is spot on as Ali, doing a voice that is so perfect that it takes a bit of time to determine whether it’s great acting or just a great impression, but he gets inside the soul of the young fighter. I feel that Hodge’s performance as Jim Brown is getting a bit lost in the shuffle in terms of recognition, which is unfortunate, because he does a terrific job in the role. His unforgettable delivery of one of the script’s most potent monologues is a highlight of the film.
There’s something strangely fascinating about watching this film about a group of legendary men talking about their responsibility to change the world. So is knowing that not only is a woman leading them behind the camera, but it’s an actress I’ve admired since we were both teens. It adds a whole new subtext to the subject matter of inequality and subjugation, but it also adds a triumphant feeling of hope in the statement it makes that we have indeed come a long way, though certainly not nearly far enough.
One Night in Miami is an intellectually and emotionally rewarding film that respects its audience and never overtly preaches or talks down to anyone, despite having so much to say. It’s an intimate and judgment-free portrait of four flawed people who achieved a level of greatness, and were faced with a question: What does my success mean if I don’t try to lift up others? It’s a message that deserves serious reflection and examination from all of us, and it’s beautifully presented in this stellar and important piece of cinema. –Patrick Gibbs