“This is one strange fucking night” – never has a film found such an apt sentence to sum up Regina King’s masterful directorial debut One Night in Miami. Aldis Hodge’s Jim Brown delivers that remark with such a comedic, ‘state of the fact’ verve that it’s bound to bring out a dose of laughter from its audience. And yet, it is just one of many frank statements that sum up the film’s impressive magnitude.
Based on Kemp Powers’ 2013 stage play, One Night in Miami tells the fictional account of when Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown, Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) gathered for one extraordinary night. On the brink of change within their professional and personal lives, they discuss their friendship, life, and the state of the country on February 25th, 1964.
Some will look at its film adaptation of enclosed spaces as limitations – faults to mark down from the high-quality film it truly is. Truthfully, it is not. One Night in Miami shares the same synergy as Denzel Washington’s Fences – a film (also based on a stage play) which examines its dynamics where there is no room to hide or run. Imbued by this logic, One Night in Miami grips us with its enriched, intimate, and scene-stealing dialogue which King cultivates effortlessly as a microcosm debate on Blackness. To quote Hamilton, watching the legendary figures interact in ‘the room where it happens’ is the epitome of Black excellence.
There’s a tendency with films involving historical figures where they place their subjects on God-like pedestals. What tends to happen is that we idolise their significance, symbolism, and achievement, but equally lose sight of their humanity. Behind every touchdown, song, speech and punch, there is a personal struggle or prejudicial indignation. King highlights this well in its opening scenes; Cassius may have won the fight against Henry Cooper, but his lack of focus was a rare occasion where someone could give him a knockout blow. Sam sings to white audiences who don’t respect him back. Malcolm’s position in the Nation of Islam is under threat while Jim visits an old friend from the South (played by Beau Bridges), who reminds Jim of his place in the world despite his NFL success. King and Powers take every resonating opportunity within One Night in Miami to ground the exploits of their characters. The recreated iconic moments from history such as Cassius Clay beating Sonny Liston, or his famous underwater shoot, take on a different feel and texture knowing the lens is intricately personal. The last time we witnessed that level of grounded interpretation was in Ava DuVernay’s Selma.
As the camera begins to shrink its expansive focus towards its stage play setting, so does the brilliance of King’s work begin to emerge. There’s so much to admire with its direction; she keeps it simple, knowing the screenplay, her brilliant cast and Terence Blanchard’s Jazz infused score will do the heavy lifting. In return, she encapsulates the innocence and the shenanigans of their humour, from Cassius’s excitable energy to Sam and Jim’s natural disappointment that the party includes being stuck in a hotel room with Malcolm, who calls on his brothers to reflect. The natural rapport the cast have is magnetic, especially when you get scenes where Malcolm loses his composed coolness as his friends play ‘catch’ with his expensive camera. Even something as small as Malcolm and Cassius praying or Malcolm phoning his family is part of the snapshot beauty of Black lives living.
But where it hits deeply are the conversations that their occupied stay entails. Colourism, white approval and appropriation, economic freedom, Black power, Black-owned business and standing up for what you believe in the face of oppression are all brought to the forefront. In one electrically charged scene, Malcolm accuses Sam that the music he plays is too soft, pandering to white audiences and doing more damage to the cause. Nothing is left off the table, calling out their contradictions, opposing ideals and beliefs that ask questions on the best way to fight injustice, prejudice while advancing the culture with their respective gifts. What does freedom and liberation look like for Black people? Through Jim, Malcolm, Sam, and Cassius, they become vessels of that in-depth discussion.
And through this, King justly creates a nervous sense of foreboding, especially when you aware of their fates. Malcolm was assassinated. Sam was murdered. Cassius would transform into Muhammad Ali but would have his World Championship title stripped at the peak of his career due to his refusal to be drafted for the Vietnam War (and subsequently be diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease). Jim retired from the NFL to pursue a movie career but blighted by numerous personal and legal troubles. Every line delivered is laced with an inescapable tragedy. It may be a re-imagining, but for those who are acutely aware of history, the decades that followed can only be summed up by grief and insurmountable loss.
It’s that solemn undertaking that One Night in Miami basks in. It doesn’t pretend it has the right answers, but for the Black community across the diaspora who have all been fighting the same war, the mood it reflects is deeply poignant. It’s not often when Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ will sound so rousing and heartbreaking at the same time.
The cast delivers phenomenal and uncanny performances to their real-life counterparts. Hodge is collectively cool as Jim Brown, only interjecting when necessary. Hamilton star Odom Jr. pulls off Cooke’s tenderness in his music with aplomb. And Goree’s nails Cassius’ showboating bravado. But in Kingsley Ben-Adir, you have something special. Always recognising the bigger picture, his rousing speeches about sitting on the sidelines and the unshakable paranoia that weaves throughout his character is the film’s emotional core.
As directorial features go, Regina King knocks it out of the park, encapsulating the full spectrum of Black lives through the eyes of its leaders as they try to advance the culture in a soul-stirring feature film. Given the conscious awakening we find ourselves as a result from this year, One Night in Miami resonates today as a culturally significant piece of cinema. No question, it is a serious contender during awards season, and the merit will be fully deserving as one of the best of 2020.
For a film that I didn’t want to end, this will linger with me for a long time.
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2020. UK Cinema release date – TBC.