One Night in Miami...
An exceptional play adaptation from first-time director Regina King
While the #oscarssowhite campaign might not have done much to diversify the Oscars themselves, they have brought to the fore a necessity for more black stories onscreen. This has been increasing slowly over the years, but this film season is proving to be an encouraging sign of changing trends, with black stories being told in the likes of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe (2020) films, in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020), The 40-Year-Old Version (2020), Sylvie’s Love (2020), Soul (2020), and Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (2020). One of the most encouraging signs of this spurt of black stories is the filmmakers behind them. We do have some of the old guard such as Lee and George C. Wolfe, but aside from them these new films have been made by up-and-coming or first-time black filmmakers. One of the most prominent of these new releases is One Night in Miami (2020).
One Night in Miami is adapted from the stage-play of the same name, fictionalizing a real-life meeting. The film largely takes place in February 1964, on a night when Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) became heavy weight world champion. Celebrating that night, Clay brought along three friends and acquaintances to his motel room: NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), activist Malcolm X (Kingley Ben-Adir), and popular singer Sam Cooke (Lelsie Odom Jr.). The film fictionalizes what the four men talked about on that fateful night, which proved to be a turning point for many of their lives.
The film is directed by first-time director Regina King, who after reaching the pinnacle of her acting career with an Oscar and four Emmys, is trying her hand in behind the camera. Kemp Powers, who wrote the original play, adapts the piece for the screen as well, proving to be a mighty partner next to King. One of the biggest challenges with adapted plays – as I mentioned in my Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom review – is the difficulty with expanding and making the story feel “at home” on the big screen. Many adaptations can remain with a cramped feeling, having its characters seeming needlessly closed in. Powers and King, however, are able to tweak certain aspects of One Night in Miami in order to give the entire film a free-flowing aura.
This freedom is first achieved with some patient introductions to each of our characters, which make good use of open spaces and a moving camera. However, once in the motel room, King keeps her characters constantly moving and milling about, entering the bathroom, searching the minifridge, or popping outside to make a call or grab some snacks. This helps prevent any scene from taking on a static feeling and doesn’t give time for viewers to realize that they’re just experiencing four men talking in one room for over an hour. Even if that had been the case, however, Powers’ screenplay has some phenomenal dialogue, and the crux of his exploration with these men is fascinating. Topics range from the more trivial, helping bring these icons down to the normal boys that they were, to intellectual highs regarding racial justice, the responsibility of being black and famous, colorism, and more.
One Night in Miami has a lot of weight on its shoulders, both to explore the political and social aspects that these four figures talked about, but also in doing justice with crafting these four real men. King and Powers are able to lend a balance between introducing these men as simple guys spending a good night together, and the groundbreaking intellectuals and figures that they were. This equilibrium between both aspects is greatly aided by the absolutely spectacular cast that King has assembled.
Portraying historical icons, especially ones as powerful and continually relevant as those depicted in One Night in Miami can be a great burden and pressure for performer and director. However, King and her cast prove to be incredibly talented in how they go about it. Instead of indulging in the “showier” aspects of the public personas, One Night in Miami focuses on small moments and a quietness in certain scenes bringing an effective depth and weight to each character. This is especially effective given the masterclass performances that are displayed on screen.
It seems unfair to single out a single performer out of the four, since they all are indulging in their particular character corner. If I had to choose two to stand out, however, it would be Odom Jr. and Ben-Adir, who carry the core intellectual confrontation of the film. Odom Jr. is mesmerizing lending a soft yet incredibly effective charisma to Sam Cooke that has you clinging to his every word as he merely whispers them. Ben-Adir perhaps had a tougher job, having to differentiate his take on Malcolm X from Denzel Washington’s famed one. While Washington brought about a take on X’s quiet intensity, Ben-Adir brings about another side of the heroic activist, imbuing him with a delicate and commanding calm. The entire cast does a fantastic job at showing four black men struggling to make their voices heard with the tools that they have scrambled for themselves. King is also able to distribute the screen time equitably between the performers, with fabulous editing smoothly interceding between conversations so that we never get too tired or wearied by a particular scene.
One Night in Miami proves to be a fascinating watch. King proves to be an exciting director to watch; she is incredibly adept at wrangling her cast, helping them deliver some of the year’s best performances. The intelligent dialogue and expanded scope of the adaptation helps humanize the famed icons while also liberating the film from potential play-like constraints. In the end, One Night in Miami is an engrossing, enlightening, and overall fun watch. It might just be the film this year that finds the tough balance between being crowd-pleasing and intellectually stimulating; a feat that is not easily achieved, let alone by a first-time director.