One Night in Miami, an adaptation of the stage play of the same name, the debut feature from director/actress Regina King is the answer to a long asked question but it is also a discussion of the future from four men that had the power to shape it. It’s also a film that successfully transcends the issues of it’s bottle episode/play like structure to tell stories unique to its characters, while constantly keeping one eye on what comes next. It’s a self assured piece of filmmaking from the first time director and one that actively treats its subjects like people, not the figures many of us saw/see them as.
The long answered question is this. When activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), famed boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr) and NFL player and future movie star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) met in a hotel room in February of 1964, what was the topic of discussion? In writer Kemp Powers (who also wrote the stage play) version of events, following Clay/Muhammed Ali’s win over Sonny Liston, these four men met to celebrate but also to reminisce, a rare reconvening of old friends separated by time, success and for some, ideology. Together an evening for reminiscing finds the four talking politics, religion and their often conflicting expectations of each other and their race, all cooled down over a bowl of ice cream.
Despite a clear glimpse of four men with the best intentions, Powers script is more than a discussion of this one moment in time, it brings together the hopes of these four figures and meshes it with our own knowledge of a future America they could never have imagined to paint a hopeful story tinged with the knowledge that this is just the beginning of a very long story. The added context that 13 months after the events of the film, two of these men (Cooke and Malcolm X) would be killed only adds to a film that seeks to seize the moment and bring its characters together. Despite some very real conflicts brewing beneath the surface, brought to life in this one room, especially between the antagonistic opinions of Cooke and Malcolm, Powers’ dialogue and King’s smooth direction bring to the fore the genuine affection between these vastly different personalities.
Although the closed nature of the story occasionally makes for a slow, melodic watch, it is in these characters that One Night In Miami glimmers with possibility. While much of the conversation surrounds the two grand and splashy performances by Odum Jr and Ben-Adir, ones full of noble intentions but lingering hypocrisy, the quieter performances by Goree and Hodge, ones full of silent power and self pride are equally important here. Hodge, coming off a star turn in Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency in particular plays Brown as a sharp judge of the world he lives in but one unwilling to bend or break because of it. It’s a laid back and observant performance worth note in a space mostly occupied by two passionate people at odds despite the goal being the same. Both Cooke and Malcolm are fierce and intelligent and both give voice to their complexity while never overdelivering. Odum Jr recently received a best supporting actor nomination at this years Oscars for his role but it’s impossible not to notice Ben-Adir or Goree’s sublime work here.
The real showcase however is in King who leisurely establishes each character while seamlessly establishing the overt and hidden racism that guides much of the film’s narrative without letting it control the conversation. Playing second fiddle to her performers, the way the film flows effortlessly through weighty monologues and musical interludes is a testament to a director who understands when to show her hand and when to back off and let her performers do the heavy lifting.
One Night In Miami is like a night at the theatre where the decisions made backstage are almost as important as the ones right in your face and ultimately it amounts to an evening that despite its hypothetical nature feels utterly authentic and well spent. The power of the film is that by the ending you want to stay in this moment, enjoying these conversations with these impressive people. The topic doesn’t matter, the character on display does. But all good stories must end and when the real world hits it hits hard thanks to a heavy hitting combo of good writing, excellent direction and performances that will knock your socks off.