Director: Regina King
Writer: Kemp Powers (script and original stageplay)
Cast: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr.
Producers: Jess Wu Calder, Keith Calder, Jody Klein
Music: Terence Blanchard
Cinematography: Tami Reiker
Editor: Tariq Anwar
Cert: 15 (TBC)
Running time: 110mins
What’s the story: Miami, 1964. Over one evening, newly crowned world heavyweight champion Cassius Clay (Goree), militant leader Malcolm X (Ben-Adir), NFL legend Jim Brown (Hodge) and soul star Sam Cooke (Odom Jr.) reflect on their successes and the struggles of the civil rights movement.
What’s the verdict: Regina King has had such a stellar two-years – starring in and winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for If Beale Street Could Talk and heading up HBO’s Watchmen – it may be easy to overlook she has been a working actor for almost 40 years.
Since 2013, King has also been directing episodes of high profile TV dramas (Southland, Scandal, This Is Us, Shameless) plus 2018’s TV Movie The Finest. This combined with her hard earned clout has delivered One Night in Miami, an engrossing, perfectly played imagining of what went down when four titans of black culture got together following Cassius Clay’s victory over Sonny Liston.
The meeting in a modest motel actually took place, and Clay, X, Brown and Cooke were all friends, but little is known of what happened. Writer Kemp Powers, adapting his own stage play, imagines the evening as the formation of the then-burgeoning Black Power movement. Through the night, the four will argue over their responsibilities to the civil rights cause and the best way to help their communities.
Malcolm X sees direct militancy as his best weapon in the fight. Sam Cooke, whom X at one point dubs a “monkey dancing for an organ grinder”, argues that his business savvy provides him and his fellow artists with a crucial economic stability.
Central to all this is the power of pop culture and sporting heroes to shift attitudes. Something Malcolm X is aware of as he coaxes Clay into embracing Islam and chides Cooke for his soulless soul ballads, while Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind climbs the charts.
But, One Night in Miami avoids sermonising by putting real character meat on the four icons. Their camaraderie, joshing and doubts ring authentic, delivered through excellent performances King elicits from her cast. A triumph of the film is that at numerous points it is easy to imagine you’re hanging out with the real deal in the motel.
All of which will cause various awards bodies headaches as they struggle to select one of the players for Best Supporting Actor.
Ben-Adir and Goree are the most obvious contenders due to the recognisability of their characters. As the pre-Ali Clay, Goree provides much of the levity in nailing the boxer’s cocky exuberance. Ben-Adir’s X is a man riven with frustration and worry at both the FBI surveilling him and The Nation of Islam’s reaction to him imminently announcing his departure. But Hamilton’s Odom Jr. and Clemency’s Hodge have arguably more difficult tasks in breathing life into now lesser known figures.
Due to the largely single location setting and the talky script, One Night in Miami does not quite wrestle free of its stage origins. But, King flexes her directorial muscles in four prologues, with each character experiencing various forms of prejudice (of which Brown’s is the film’s biggest shock moment).
The director also demonstrates a keen visual eye in various scene transitions (e.g. light reflection from a glass dissolving into stadium lights) and arresting compositions (Clay shadow boxing underwater, Cooke leading an auditorium in an impromptu singalong).
A sheen of melancholy inevitably coats the movie; in real life Cooke was killed later that year, X was murdered a year later, Ali’s boxing career led to Parkinson’s Disease and Brown’s post-NFL Hollywood career rarely rose above schlocky filler. Now most tragic is that the film’s themes are still relevant to 2020.
But, as an intelligent, funny and necessary film for this moment, this is a memorable night out.