Actress Regina King is 35 years into her career, and just within the last five years, she has won an Oscar, four Emmys, and several other awards for her performances in acclaimed titles like ‘If Beale Street Could Talk,’ miniseries ‘Watchmen,’ and Netflix’s ‘Seven Seconds.’ In a recent interview, she called the “Black American” experience “emotional aerobics.” For that diaspora, every generation has had seminal figures who have led the charge within the civil rights movement, right down to the racial injustices that plague them today. For a woman whose performances have often found resonance within the canon, and who has faced the odds to make a name for herself, the dramatic whimsy of ‘One Night in Miami’ makes perfect sense as a debut.
What is the story about?
It sounds odd. But you better believe that in spite of several light-hearted moments, ‘One Night in Miami’ is set in 1964 and follows four African American legends in a fictionalized meeting. Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) has become the heavyweight champion by defeating Sonny Liston. Segregation laws mean that he can’t take to the beach, so he invites his friends - mentor Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) - to the Hampton House Motel. What follows is a rich dialogue of how these men will substantially utilize the power that they have been bestowed, all the while Cassius comes to terms with a major life decision that will change everything.
Adapted by Kemp Powers (whose work you will also get to enjoy in Pixar’s wonderfully unique ‘Soul,’) from his 2013 stage play of the same name, ‘One Night in Miami’ stays true to its theatrical roots. The play itself is inspired by true events but we know that the night in concern never actually happened the way it’s written, the details are lost to history. Still, the conceptualization and staging of the play itself is genius. It is a time when African Americans are still struggling to make their voices heard. And by putting four cultural icons who deal with a common experience through different lenses, gives the story a sense of varied vibrancy. The men are confined in the four walls of a room, but showcase their activism through passionate dialogue and palpable frustration, lined with the goodness of hope and brotherhood.
Each of the men is important in their fields and their talent and resilience will go on to make a path for future generations in those fields and beyond, we know this. Clay or Muhammad Ali is a seminal name in sport, so is Brown, Cooke in music, and Malcolm X in civil and human rights. The men are friends but are often down each other’s throats in jibes and barbs. They’re all working towards the same goal, that of bringing a change, even if it is through different platforms. This part of the film is performed like the play. But King and Powers use the feature film format to adequately establish the smaller arcs of each figure, thus legitimizing their opinions that make for the banter. Meanwhile, the strongest part of the film still remains the sheer poetry in thought as the men talk about how they identify with their religion, what is their place in the community, and how they can actively eradicate racism. At multiple points, the film’s protagonists are put into trios and pairing, and while their approaches to the movement may be different, their motivations often overlap. ‘One Night in Miami’ is verbose, communicative, and emotional in dialogue, but it’s also deeply melancholy and funny, considering the uncertain (but now known tragic) future of its characters.
It goes without saying that Goree gets to give the most ostentatious performance as Clay, because of the sheer showmanship that the sportsman embodied while in the ring, and even outside it. Odom Jr. and Hodge’s characters come from the least amount of baggage, and that gives them ample scope to embody the men and perform beyond expectation. But it is Ben-Adair who really knocks it out of the park as the progressive but trepidatious Malcolm X, with his nervous but firm belief that his way is the best one forward.
Music & Other Departments
As a period piece, ‘One Night in Miami’ boasts of great work by production designer Barry Robinson who lends a 60s tinge to the look and tone of the film, with Tami Reiker’s stunning cinematography, and Terence Blanchard’s subtle score. You also enjoy the occasional ditty by Odom Jr. and other artists who were Cooke’s contemporaries.
Conversations about societal oppression that momentarily culminate into verbal sparring are the main action and the main highlight of the film, catapulted by its tremendous central performances. Each man gets his preface into the main night, and most of them are such severe punch-in-the-guts, that everything that follows later becomes a footnote in the story of racial injustice. ‘One Night in Miami’ is superbly written, directed, and performed, and is masterfully crafted as well.
‘One Night in Miami’ does fall, sometimes, into the trap of being a bit too theatrical, where certain sub-plots in the story with the characters don’t really flow into the overall plot as seamlessly. This may make the pacing feel a bit slow at points. It is also an extremely dialogue-heavy movie, and that may not be everyone’s cup of tea.
Did I enjoy it?
Yes! The dialogue itself made me fly.
Do I recommend it?
Yes! It’s a great start to King’s directorial career, not to mention it’s an immensely engaging film about the African American experience.