When one thinks of Malcolm X, Cassius Clay a.k.a. Muhammed Ali, Jim Brown or Sam Cooke, the words ‘iconic’, ‘legendary’, ‘game-changing’, and ‘heroes’ come to mind. Of course, these men had faults; they are human beings. However, what screenwriter Kemp Powers and director Regina King present to us in One Night in Miami is how these individuals — faults and all — became the icons we’ve come to know.
One Night in Miami concocts a fictionalised get-together in a Miami motel room in February 1964 to celebrate Cassius Clay’s surprise win over Sonny Liston. This intimate portrait of a gathering between these four aforementioned figures illuminates how each man and their respective beliefs helped shape our world today. By taking this seemingly innocuous gathering of friends and having each of them explore themselves and their roles in the civil rights movement gives us access to these people behind closed doors, but also provides a shorthand to audiences to understand how each man at this point in their lives proved why they were the ones who would change history.
The film lives and dies by the performances of Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr, and Eli Goree, with Kingsley Ben-Adir proving to be more than up to the challenge.
Since Jim Brown is a descendent of slaves he does not willfully forget how white Americans view him despite being a football legend. His behaviour and mannerisms which are portrayed expertly by Aldis Hodge, give us a man who is willing to push the boundaries of his success and fame to live a life true to himself, and in spite of racists who would rather see him shut up and play.
Kingsley Ben-Adir has the seemingly impossible task of bringing to life Malcolm X for what feels like the millionth time. His performance (unlike the other three) sits in a darker place. The opening moments with him show a man who is quite literally at the end of his rope and sadly, his fears and anxieties about the future became justified with his assassination only a year later.
Sam Cooke is a man who is more than aware of his talents as a singer but continues to fight for his place in white spaces. Although he isn’t entirely as vocal as Malcolm X, he is someone who is acutely aware of the unfortunate trade-offs Black artists must do to gain a foothold. The evolution of this perspective is fully realised as the film progresses and he shares more scenes with Malcolm X. Odom Jr.’s performance as Sam Cooke does not have nearly the same foreboding nature as Ben-Adir since Cooke’s demise later that year was sudden and extremely unexpected. Despite their grim fates, the juxtaposition of these two figures is utterly captivating as their different approaches to getting ahead in life clash greatly, but have the same effects.
While Ben-Adir is playing a man at the end of his life, at the opposite end is Eli Goree who plays a young Clay (prior to the name change) who is bursting with energy and optimism as it is just the beginning for him. The dichotomy between Cassius and Malcolm is also incredibly vital, and both Powers and King expertly capture this strangely devastating reality of these close friends heading in opposite directions. Goree is truly the greatest find, as his charisma and powerful presence are not only worthy of the late boxing legend but it is the central performance that holds everything together balancing out the heavy topics of discussion with Cassius Clay’s exhilarating win against Liston.
Regina King directs her first feature as though it were one of many under her belt. She expertly manages to make a rinky-dink motel room feel more than that. Instead, it is the backdrop for an epic battle of philosophies and identities. The value of this film does not lie in overly technical craftsmanship, although it is very well directed and most notably, framed. However, the film’s power lies in the crafting of each character and how they work in tandem or against each other.
Eloquently written by Powers, the film delves into a night of conversing and fighting amongst a group of larger-than-life individuals who changed the course of history in their respective fields: civil rights, football, boxing and music. The magnificent feat taken by Powers and King is to drive entertainment and poignancy from the dialogue. Music is scarcely used, there is rarely a shift in location and the screen is largely occupied by solely these four actors. King is an actor who has proven more than once that she is a master at her craft and as the director of this feature, she inspires her ensemble to go above and beyond in crafting these characters, living in the truth of each person, and unifying into one powerful ensemble.
One Night in Miami is an exemplary piece of work that solidifies its place amongst important Black cinema. It is an exceptional example of having a truly fantastic ensemble, the power of dialogue, and most importantly, character development. By the time this ends, you too will feel a kinship with these heroes.
One Night in Miami screened at the virtual edition of Toronto international Film Festival 2020. Amazon Studios have acquired worldwide distribution rights to the film
by Ferdosa Abdi
Ferdosa (she/her) is a lifetime student of cinema. Three of her current favourite films are: Addams Family Values, Cinderella (2015), and Emma. (2020). On Twitter you can see her support women-led cinema, her ongoing love/hate relationship with Disney, her totally healthy obsession with Eva Green, and her great admiration for Guillermo del Toro.