Odin O’Sullivan reviews Regina King’s directorial debut, One Night in Miami.
After a year of worldwide civil unrest, protests, and insurrections fighting against extensions of police power and the murder of black people in the United States and beyond, a plethora of striking and important protest art was released across all mediums. Regina King’s directorial debut One Night In Miami is a film in that tradition which reaches back into history to showcase how we can move forward. Set on the 25th of February 1964, the film is a fictionalised account of a real night spent at the Hampton House by friends Malcom X (Kinglsey Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) after Clay’s surprise world heavyweight title win over Sonny Liston. The imagined account of what they may have spoken about is dynamic and wide reaching, set as it is, on the eve of huge change for the four protagonists and the struggle for civil rights and black liberation. Malcom X is about to break from the Nation of Islam (and spends poignant moments appearing to foresee his own murder), Cassius Clay is about to convert to Islam and be reborn as Muhammed Ali, Sam Cooke is about to record and release a defining record of the civil rights era “A Change is Gonna Come” before his untimely death, and Jim Browne is about to quit the NFL to become an actor. The films imagined account situates this evening as a catalyst for these now iconic developments, the discussions had by the four men covering the reasoning behind these choices, different approaches to Black liberation, interpersonal conflicts, as well as many others exemplary moments of insight into these characterisations of some of the 20th centuries most iconic Black figures.
Written originally as a play by Kemp Powers before being adapted to the screen, the film retains some of that theatrical feeling. Most of the action takes place in one motel room, with few excursions to the roof, phone booth, liquor store, and car. Despite this, the film does not feel like a filmed play, and all the derisive connotations that term holds. The cinematography is dynamic, the colours in the room, the production design, and the costuming all create a beautiful and period correct aesthetic. The blocking and pairing off of characters in different parts of the small room at different times does make it recognizable as having been adapted from a play, but the camera movement provides us with a certain intimacy unachievable in a play.
Despite On Night in Miami’s 1964 setting it is frighteningly contemporary. Jim Brown’s assertion to Clay that, to the white sports fan, “we’re all just gladiators'' is stark in light of analysis of the NFL as buying the youth of Black men only to drop them when too injured to continue playing. This insight is even more devastating having seen in the opening of the film an old family friend of Brown’s tells him how proud he is of him and his football career before refusing to let him in the house due to his race. Both Aldis Hodge and Eli Goree are excellent as Brown and Clay but where the performances really shine is during the vicious ideological disputes between Leslie Odom Jr's Sam Cooke and Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcom X. Malcolm sees Cooke’s financial success as a result of “sitting on the fence” and pandering to white audiences, while Cooke sees financial freedom as the only legitimate freedom for Black people in America. After a particularly stinging back and forth between the two Cooke storms out. Clay follows him and in the company of only Brown, Malcolm X breaks down. Through tears his passionate cry that “there’s no room to be on the fence anymore...Black people are dying in the streets everyday!” is heartbreaking in its continued relevance.
One Night in Miami is a triumph for all involved and an excellent directorial debut from King. It currently stands nominated for best adapted screenplay and best original song at the Oscars and Leslie Odom Jr is nominated for best supporting actor, something which he roundly deserves. But award nominations aside it is a film which is well worth watching, for its presentation of a revolutionary cultural moment, for its “too amazing to be true” collection of four icons in one room, and for its beautiful design, visuals, and performances. Not one actor feels like they’re doing an impression, or pulling from hackneyed phrases of traits of the real men. They embody these figures each in their own way. Ben-Adir’s Malcom X is particularly well done, considering both the defining performance of Denzel Washington almost 30 years previous, and the larger than life persona of X himself. The film is currently on Amazon Prime and although I wish I had been able to see it in the cinema, this film deserves to be seen regardless of the size of the screen.