December 21st, 2020
MOVIE: ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI
STARRING: KINGSLEY BEN-ADIR, ELI GOREE, ALDIS HODGE, LESLIE ODOM JR.
DIRECTED BY: REGINA KING
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 3 STARS (Out of 4)
In 2020, there was a strong boost to movies that worked as stage-plays. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was the big one, with amazing performances from the two leads, becoming a beautiful moment for the life of Chadwick Boseman. The Father is a mind bender, digging into the head of a man who is struggling with dementia, and it all comes through Anthony Hopkins who proves how great he can always be. The third movie is One Night In Miami, Regina King’s directorial debut, and it might be the most complex of the three. Not for the narrative structure itself, but because there are more factors at hand, where the writing, acting, casting, and production all need to be hits. The story involves four iconic men in the black community, Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) spending one night together at a Miami motel, after Clay had defeated Sonny Liston to become the boxing champion of the world. The conversations are rich with emotions, about the state of the world, the Vietnam war, the struggles for the Black community, and the impacts they are making with their voices. One Night in Miami is a fictional account of great men gathering as friends and it makes for a fascinating experience to be in the room where it happened.
The writing of the screenplay is by Kemp Powers (co-director of Soul), based on his stage play of the same name, and it’s safe to say everyone else involved understood the tone and texture to tell this story. The narrative begins in the ring, Clay defeating Sonny Liston, with Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Malcolm X sitting ringside, but the reasoning behind this gathering is more than just the sport. It also is a time where Cassius is in the processes of becoming a member of the Muslim brotherhood, and changing his name to Muhammad Ali. They go from the car and arrive at the motel and this is where the conversation heats up. Malcolm is struggling in his relationships with Muslim leaders, Cassius has reached a peak of success he worries he might not handle, Jim Brown reveals that he is leaving football for acting, and Sam is lamenting on the respect he’s yet to be given for his graceful, gorgeous singing. Each man is going through their own fight, in a country, a world that constantly tries to put men of their stature in their place. This conversation is not a celebration, but a study of the human side of four men in positions to create a change.
Typically in a narrative like this, things feel staged, keeping the cast boxed in and One Night in Miami does become a victim of that. The movie to compare it to is Richard Linklater’s Tape, which involves three characters talking in a motel room the entire time. The narrative eases up a bit when King lets the characters separate from one another, with Cooke and Clay going to a liquor store to pick up drinks, while Malcolm and Brown chat in the room. She also relieves those problems by using flashbacks to create depth to the story. What Regina King also doesn’t let it become is boring, as the performances from all four actors ebb and flow with energy, especially Kingsley Ben-Adir, whose passionate performance as Malcolm X feels inspired. The second best of the group is Leslie Odom Jr. The Hamilton star uses his own vocals to portray the sweet music from Sam Cooke. He also engages in a deep, heated debate with Malcolm X on the importance of his songs, the messages they need to send when using their platforms, and how it is a struggle to be Black in the United States of America.
The reason why One Night in Miami works is because of the fearless leader: Regina King. The oscar winner obviously has an eye for talent and aesthetic. The cast is all spot on in each role, especially Eli Goree who’s performance as Ali is a mixture of impersonation and exact copy of the champion boxer. The costume design is excellent, with well tailored suits, vibrant colors in the night, and a brisk nature to the dramatics. It’s not about where the narrative is going, more about experiencing these personalities, being in the room with these men, and Regina King proves that she knows how to hang out with the guys.
On top of all that praise One Night in Miami succeeds at creating a moment. It’s an event that never happened, but by the end I was wishing that it had. The lives of these four have had an incredible impact in the arts they produced, the words they spoke, the competitions they fought, the messages they would send, and it’s something few of us would ever truly understand. One Night in Miami gives a window into the gathering of four people that have left a lasting impact on the world. It’s all worth it, even if it is for just one night.
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI IS AVAILABLE ON AMAZON PRIME JANUARY 15TH
Written by: Leo Brady