2020 is the year of the play being turned into a film, oddly enough. In addition to One Night in Miami… and its stage origin, we have other Oscar contenders of this same ilk, like The Father, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and more. These are successful interpretations, with One Night in Miami... actually being among the most successful, but it’s no easy task. To pull it off, you need a soft touch, as well as some structured ambition. Considering that this is the directorial debut of an actress turned filmmaker, it’s all the more impressive. Not only is this an Academy Award player, it’s one of the year’s more engaging and moving films, overall.
One Night in Miami… manages to depict four larger than life figures in an incredibly human manner. The film is entertaining and interesting, but it’s truly thought-provoking at its core. Plus, the woman behind the camera is truly someone to make a fuss over. In a year of strong directorial debuts, Regina King delivers one of the best. Her mastery of the craft is immediately evident. The flick will haunt you with how well it puts you in the shoes of four men at pivotal moments in their lives.
Set in 1964, this is a fictionalized depiction of a momentous event on the night of February 25th. Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) has just become the Heavyweight Champion of the World. The boxer is looking to celebrate, after having pulled off an upset win, shocking the world. However, with this being Miami in the 60s, he can’t just spend a night out on the town. So, Clay ends up spending the night in Miami’s African American Overtown neighborhood, at the Hampton House Motel. There, he plans to celebrate with three of his closest friends. Who might they be? Well, Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and of course, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir).
As the four interact, different points of view emerge. Each of them are cross-over celebrities, viewed as important, but not everyone is comfortable with being a full on voice for change as the Civil Rights movement rages on. Clay is still having fun, though contemplating what Malcolm is wooing him with. Malcom, of course is leading a movement, though not without pushback from somewhat more moderate figures like Brown and Cooke. In the case of Cooke, he’s no less angry or determined to right wrongs, but his approach is quite different. Throughout the night, they talk things out, trying to see what makes the others tick, unaware of where history will take them all.
The cast is uniformly excellent, so your favorite will undoubtedly vary among you. Kingsley Ben-Adir and Leslie Odom Jr. have the showiest roles, but don’t sleep on Eli Goree or Aldis Hodge. The quartet are equally terrific. The supporting players like Beau Bridges, Michael Imperioli, and Lance Reddick don’t leave much of an impression, but the main foursome sure do. Ben-Adir and Odom Jr. especially shine, showcasing well known figures in new and surprising ways. The former makes Malcom X more of a conflicted individual than we’ve ever seen, while the latter gives Sam Cooke even more layers. Of course, Goree and Hodge more than effectively depict Cassius Clay and Jim Brown, respectively. Ensemble wise, this is one of 2020’s best, for sure.
Regina King and Kemp Powers make for a terrific team. Powers’ play provides the sparkling dialogue, while composer Terence Blanchard and cinematographer Tami Reiker provide King with technical prowess. Her ability to keep things moving, never allowing stasis to set in, is done with the confidence of a veteran. There’s never a sense that you’re watching someone’s first film. Her confidence and effectiveness washes over the cast, and that’s part of where the magic comes from.
One Night in Miami… has more to offer than just stock Oscar fare. It’s a conversation started, which is tremendously important, especially these days. To be sure, it’s also an Academy Award player, so don’t sleep on it there. It’s simply the type of work that moves beyond such a temporary distinction. Regina King and her cast, through the words of Kemp Powers, have left behind something compelling, educational, and impossible to shake. They all deserve kudos, from top to bottom. Bravo.