WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
On the night of 25 February 1964 in Miami, four legends – Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Malcolm X get together to discuss the responsibility of being successful black men during the civil rights movement.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
It is amazing how one night can change the course of history – that is the premise behind One Night in Miami. Regina King's directorial debut is a study not only of the characters who shaped the world but also the important discussions that we still have today.
Written by Kemp Powers and based on his play by the same name, it tells the story of legends and friends: activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), boxer Cassius Clay/Muhammed Ali (Eli Goree), musician Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr) and football player Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) who meet up in a motel room after Clay wins an iconic boxing match and they discuss various topics from their role as successful black men to religion to colourism.
This is a fictional account of a real event that happened. The four were friends and did get together on that night, and no one can be sure of what was said, just that after that night, each of the four made drastic decisions with their life.
When looking at Malcolm X in archival footage or even the version of him, that was played by Denzel Washington in Spike Lee's biopic; it presents to us a very different man to what we see in One Night in Miami. Ben-Adir shows us the man behind the impassioned speeches and the onscreen persona; he shows us a man grappling with deciding to leave the Nation of Islam, a man fighting to protect his family, a man who feels like he is on borrowed time and is desperate to influence others to make a difference. Ben-Adir's portrayal does not feel inauthentic, he still has the resilience and fight that we associate with Malcolm X, but he is less guarded, more vulnerable. It is the Malcolm with the cameras turned off. Every word that Malcolm says seems punctuated with emotion and gravity. He is a quiet force who influences everyone who comes into his path – whether positively or negatively – and he is the type of the person who would make you think about everything that he said long after he had left the building.
Cassius Clay is the youngest member of the group; he is vibrant, enthusiastic and revelling in his title. He is also undergoing a journey to converting to Islam but is struggling to leave behind his worldly pleasures. Through the events of the evening, Clay goes through many discussions with Malcolm about why it is important that he announces his change of religion and with Jim Brown and Sam Cooke on what he would be giving up by converting. Goree seems to shine in this role, having a lot more fun and light-hearted dialogue and getting to be a bit more playful than the others. But we also understand that he knows what a big decision he is making and that he is ready for it, we don't underestimate the man who will become the world's most famous boxer.
Aldis Hodge is the most subtle of the group as footballer Jim Brown. At the beginning of the film, we see a scene where he visits a seemingly nice white man (Beau Bridges) from his hometown who talks to him about how proud he is about how well Brown is doing in the NFL, and if he needs anything, he must not hesitate to ask. But when Brown offers to help him move something inside the house, the man comments that he does not let black people inside the house (he uses a racial slur which I would not like to repeat). That seems to be the background that we as audiences need to understand Brown's point of view that you can work for and work with white people, but there will always be those who would look down on you no matter how much you have achieved. However, he is also at a crossroads, he is extremely confident in his talent, abilities and point of view but now he wants to crossover into acting, which is something that he is unfamiliar with and not as confident in. We see this struggle within Brown, but through most of the film, he acts more like a sounding board for the others. He listens to Malcolm's struggles, questions Cassius' decision to convert, defends Sam's position. I wish they would have done more with the writing of this character so that we could have learnt more about his background, and his experiences within the white-dominated NFL of the time, especially since we still see problems arising with outspoken footballers such as Colin Kaepernick.
Even though this is a four-hitter with each of the actors giving magnificent performances, the one who has received the most recognition thus far has been Leslie Odom Jr as Sam Cooke. Cooke, a popular soul singer of the time, was known for trying to crossover to gain success among white audiences. Odom Jr has a lot to work with, one of the more tense scenes is between Malcolm and Cooke, whereby Malcolm is chastising him for not using his voice enough for the movement. Cooke argues that by gaining financial success, he is helping the black community. Malcolm believes he can do more and cites Bob Dylan as an example of someone who is using his voice to support a cause, which riles Cooke up. Odom Jr, who won a Tony for his portrayal of Aaron Burr in Hamilton is sensational. He is charming but also defensive; he is grappling with his own struggles about his role in the movement, and Malcolm's interrogation seems to bring all of that to the service. Odom Jr has the added bonus that he sings during scenes as well, giving the performance even more gravitas.
Oscar and Emmy-winning actor, Regina King, is behind the camera, and even though it is her first time directing a feature film, you can see a sense of art and precision of someone who has spent a lot of time on set. There are many directors who are known as actors' directors; they seem to get the best performances from their actors because they know how to hone their skills and create environments where the actors can shine. This is especially true if you have been an actor and knows what situations help you produce your best work. You can see this a lot in the work of Ron Howard and Clint Eastwood, but this film especially reminded me of Robert Redford's directorial debut, Ordinary People, where it is also the story of a tight-knit group of characters and his direction seemed to bring out outstanding work by the actors.
Even though the film is based on a play and mostly takes place in one room, you never feel the suffocation one often feels with the play-based films. The cinematography is stunning, from the luminous lights of the motel to crisp darkness of the outside sky. The light is always on our four characters because they are the ones in the spotlight.
The film's tone does well to marry the hope that the characters have that change is coming, with the melancholy that we, as the audience, have because we know what is to come. Within the next year after this meeting, both Malcolm and Cooke would be dead, and a lot of the issues that they are struggling with are still issues today as we saw with the Black Lives Matter protests in the US last year. After the 'one night' in question, Malcolm X would be assassinated, Cassius Clay would publicly announce his conversion to Islam and the change of his name, Jim Brown would quit the NFL and move into acting and activism, and Sam Cooke would release the protest anthem, A Change is Gonna Come.
This is a film worth watching. Not only because it tells an interesting story about four figures that we think we know so well, but also because it is illuminating exploration of the history of black empowerment and how far we still have to go.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: