This film was screened as a part of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.
After years of directing stellar episodes of serialized television, as well as a made-for-television movie, Oscar winner Regina King is going big with her breakout feature film directorial debut. With her Oscar win for If Beale Street Could Talk and four Emmy awards in the past five years (she’s also poised for a fifth trophy later this year), there is no better time for King to expand her empire behind the camera. One Night in Miami, acquired by Amazon Studios ahead of its bows the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, is based on the play by the same name from Kemp Powers. He also penned the script for the film.
With the film, King was the very first Black woman to have a film premiere at Venice. The film is an ambitious task in itself because it chronicles Black historical figures. Adapting this body of work for the big screen, considering the fact that it mostly takes place within the confines of a single room, was a challenge as well. Still, King takes everything head-on, with excellent results.
This story gives a fictional account of a real-life night featuring Cassius Clay (before he became Muhammad Ali, portrayed by Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.). All high-profile figures from their respective fields ―activism, music and sports ― they shared friendships with each other. Though this meeting happened in real-life, there is no documentation or evidence of what occurred and what was discussed.
The film opens in 1963 with a single look at each of the figures at different points in their careers and/or life: Clay during his match with Henry Cooper in London, Cooke performing for a tough, white crowd at the Copacabana, Brown in his hometown while he’s contemplating a full-fledged film career and Malcolm X with his wife, Betty Shabazz, discussing his division with Nation of Islam. A year later, the quartet gathers in Miami at the same time as Clay’s fight with Sonny Liston. This is during the time Malcolm is courting Clay to join the Nation of Islam. After the fight, they are all brought together at the Hampton Hotel, where Malcolm has assembled them. While the men are looking for a party atmosphere, they are taken aback when Malcolm tells them that they are the only ones that will be in attendance. Instead of a party, Malcolm is more interested in reflective conversations about the state of America.
Though the talks move breezily at first, they soon turn contentious and conflict arises. All four men seem to have the same goals, but different ways of reaching them. A lot of the division is between Malcolm and Cooke, who are at odds after the former calls out the latter for not using his platform enough to talk about what’s going on in the country. Malcolm believes that artists like Cooke and athletes like Brown and Clay can use their influence for good. This is why he wants Clay to join the Nation of Islam. However, he fails to mention his experiences with the NOI and his own doubts, which ends up being a turning point in the night. Despite the unresolved conflicts, the end of the night results in the four men leaving the room with different objectives than before.
With a different director, different script and different actors, the film could have easily fallen flat, especially because much of it takes place during this one night, in this one room. But even in times that it seems to be getting stagnant, One Night in Miami never loses its luster, due to incredible choices in King’s direction, which pull every bit of emotion from the characters. It’s clear in parts that this is taken from a stage work, but King really elevates it to true “film” status, unlike some other stage-to-screen projects.
Another great thing that the film does is aptly balance tone. Yes, the film is a drama and deals with a lot of more serious topics that the characters are discussing, but the great thing about it is that it has a whole lot of heart and is even humorous at times. In spite of their arguments, the group’s camaraderie, brotherhood, love and emotion delivers in full.
All around, the four leads deliver incredible performances, several of which will likely be dominant in Oscar conversations. Ben-Adir rises to the occasion and his Malcolm X character is given the most to work with. He leaves his own stamp on Malcolm, a very different take from what we’ve seen from Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s film and Nigél Thatch’s great work in Selma and Godfather of Harlem.
None of the figures lack nuance. Odom is able to effortlessly ease into Cooke and Hodge is top tier in his portrayal of Brown. But relative newcomer Goree oozes charisma in a star-making moment, making great use of every moment he is on-screen. The actor, most known prior to this for his roles in Riverdale and the short-lived Suits spinoff, Pearson, masterfully channels the youthful shyness, eagerness and bravado of the then-Clay.
One Night in Miami proves that King is not only a delight in front of the camera, but she has the directing chops as well. This is sure to be just the beginning for her in this arena, and everyone better watch out.