Director: Regina King
Writer: Kemp Powers
Starring: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Leslie Odom Jr., Aldis Hodge, Eli Goree
Year: 2020
Duration: 114 mins
Country: America 
BBFC Certification: 15

It is fair to say that Regina King must enjoy a challenge. For her feature film debut, she chose to not only direct an adaptation of a stage play (which, as far as I can gather, mostly takes place in a single room) but to tell a story featuring not just one but four iconic historical figures. While One Night in Miami is most certainly not a biopic, cinematic depictions of legendary figures usually fail far more often than they succeed, attaining a kind of dry middle ground where a star’s performance or impersonation is usually the highlight of an overstretched and overburdened narrative. It is all the more remarkable then that with One Night in Miami, King manages to avoid the pitfalls that might have engulfed many other directors. She manages to inject a sense of cinematic style into what is still (mostly) a story about four men stuck together in a single room, but more remarkably and significantly, she offers a sense of dimensionality and humanity to four famous men who have become so iconic that any sense of their real person has gradually been consumed by their legend.

Set over one night in 1964 (although we are treated to a brief, London set prologue), One Night in Miami takes a forensic and creative deep dive at a fascinating nugget of historical trivia that even the film’s (and play’s) writer Kemp Powers was surprised to find out was true – namely, that after Muhammad Ali’s championship winning fight against Sonny Liston on the 25th February 1964, the newly crowned boxer, the soul singer Sam Cooke, American football player Jim Brown and political activist Malcolm X all spent the night together in a Miami hotel room. Of course we’ll never know what really transpired that February evening but the fact that it took place during one of the most tumultuous and significant periods of American history, against the backdrop of the emerging Civil Rights movement, ensures that Powers finds plenty of dramatic meat for his characters to chew on.

It takes a while to get there though. Powers and King take their time setting up each character and even when they do all finally meet up at the hotel, their initial meeting is one that feels light and loose. It is only after a confrontation on the hotel rooftop that the film seems to switch gears and the tinders that have been flickering for the previous hour bust into riveting, dramatic life.

Although on paper the film belongs to each of the four legends who spent that night together, the heart and soul of One Night in Miami belongs to Malcolm X and Sam Cooke. Their debate and argument (centring around Malcolm X’s accusation that Sam Cooke wasn’t using his power and influence to help the Civil Rights movement) flows like a boxing match in itself and is the fuel that drives the narrative, providing its most engaging moments, both thematically and emotionally. This is not to suggest that both Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown fade into the background (between them, Powers and King do a brilliant job of giving each character enough screen time to ensure that the film feels balanced) but there is no denying that One Night in Miami soars its highest during the combative moments between the singer and the political campaigner.

And soar high it most certainly does. Like any stage adaptation, One Night in Miami succeeds on the strength of its writing and its performances and it is the visceral combination of these that paves the way to arguably the film’s greatest triumph; namely the manner in which it humanises men whose stature and legend typically makes them feel distant and inscrutable.

Powers achieves this right from the off by introducing each character at one of their lowest points. Ali gets knocked down during his opening boxing match, Sam Cooke suffers from a disastrous performance at the Copacabana, Malcolm X finds himself adrift from the organisation that had come to define him, while Jim Brown…well, that bit you’ll have to watch for yourself, as to say any more would ruin the impact (needless to say, Bo Bridges makes a short but devastating cameo). 

When these men first meet up in the hotel room, then, they aren’t legends or icons waiting to be deconstructed. Instead, we find four men, each at individual crossroads in their lives, each of them confused, scared and vulnerable. Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown are normal human beings waiting to be discovered and explored. For a few hours at least, their legend is on pause. 

As good as Powers’s screenplay is, it is the performances that really seal the deal. There is not a weak chink in the amour here. Both Eli Goree and Aldis Hodge bring an air of youthful exuberance and calm stoicism respectively to their roles of Ali and Brown, while Leslie Odom Jr. (of Hamilton fame) provides a performance every bit as engaging and emotional as his almost supernatural recreation of Sam Cooke’s singing voice (just wait for the final scene!). Yet the most breathtaking performance in the film belongs Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X. Soulful, passionate and riveting, it feels like a career making turn that elevates One Night in Miami from being something merely good towards something great. King, Powers and Ben-Adir must also be credited with depicting a warmer, more vulnerable side to Malcolm X, a man whose depiction in cinema usually leans towards the abrasive and antagonistic. It is, in short, an absolutely revelatory turn from the British actor.

King herself deserves equal praise. Her background as an Oscar winning actor clearly pays off dividends, helping to ensure that not only does each actor give a great individual performance but that the whole ensemble actually feels like a group of friends who have known each other for years.

She equally succeeds in making One Night in Miami actually feel like a film as opposed to a dry recreation of a stage play, helped in no small part by a subtle, constantly moving camera and thoughtful blocking. She doesn’t employ any outlandish cinematic techniques but the cumulative effect of the cinematography allows King to ensure that the confines of the set never feel stagy or stuffy. Too often film adaptations of plays feel like insipid reactions of a theatrical  performance. That certainly isn’t the case here.

Overall then, King has hit the ball out of the park with One Night in Miami. Tied together by a beautifully simple ending that is as cathartic as it is shadowed with tragedy, it ends on a feeling of hope; yet it is depressing it needs to at all, reflecting the fact that some of the issues explored in the film are still as prevalent and as valid today as they were almost 60 years ago. A change certainly did come, but not enough; some changes still feel like they are a very long time coming. 

Film:

Originally released as an exclusive via Amazon Prime, One Night in Miami is now being released on Blu Ray by Criterion. Being such a recent film, the picture quality and sound are, as to be expected, beautifully sharp and crisp throughout. The only caveat is that I thought I saw some very mild compression artefacts in the night sky during the rooftop scene, but nowhere near enough to ruin enjoyment. A great A/V presentation all round.

Extras are as follows:

  • New conversation between King and filmmaker Kasi Lemmons
  • New conversation among King, screenwriter Kemp Powers, and critic Gil Robertson
  • Conversation between King and filmmaker Barry Jenkins from a 2021 episode of The Director’s Cut – A DGA Podcast
  • New program featuring King and actors Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, and Leslie Odom Jr.
  • New program on the making of the film, featuring King, Powers, director of photography Tami Reiker, editor Tariq Anwar, producer Jody Klein, costume designer Francine Jamison-Tanchuck, and set decorator Janessa Hitsman
  • New program on the film’s sound design, featuring sound editor and mixer Andy Hay, sound mixer Paul Ledford, and music producer Nick Baxter

Criterion haven’t provided a commentary with this release but they do include almost three hours worth of documentaries and interviews, which cover pretty much all aspects of the film. Three of these extras take the form of conversations and interviews. The Essential Collaboration features King, Powers and critic Gil Robertson discussing the collaborative process between the writer and director. This half hour feature covers a wide range of topics, covering everything from the inspiration for the script all the way through to dealing respectfully with historical figures. Becoming a Director is the first of two conversations with just King herself. In this feature, actress and filmmaker Kasi Lemmons (you may recognise her as Clarice’s friend in Silence of the Lambs) interviews King mainly about directing, but they move on to cover other topics. This is a warm, engaging conversation that offers really interesting thoughts on the matter of cultural appropriation and the stories directors can/should tell. The second conversation, filmed for the DGA, features director Barry Jenkins (director of Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, the film where King won her Oscar). This is a more technical chat than the interview with Lemmons but, at just over 40 minutes, covers a ton of really interesting ground. All three of these features are absolutely worth a watch.

The next three extras are more standard ‘making of’ documentaries. One looks at the characters and actors, one looks at sound design and the last covers the visual look of the film, looking mainly and costume and production design and the cinematography. All three are interesting (the sound documentary in particular goes into almost forensic detail about the sound work on the film) but I do wish the extras Criterion included offered more insights and thoughts from the actors themselves, beyond the short 20 minute feature we get here. Overall, however, this is still a fantastic and wide ranging series of extras that really help to deepen your appreciation and understanding of the film. 

One Night in Miami
Film
Disc/Extras
4.5Overall Score
Reader Rating: (0 Votes)

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