Academy Award winning actress Regina King’s extraordinary directorial debut is an adaptation of a play that tells the story of one evening in 1964 when four African-American icons get together in a small motel room in Miami. Those men are Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir, “Peaky Blinders”, “High Fidelity), Cassius Clay, soon to become Mohammed Ali (Eli Goree, Race, “Ballers”), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge, Hidden Figures, The Invisible Man), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr., Hamilton‘s Aaron Burr). They come together to celebrate their friend Clay’s upset victory over world heavyweight boxing champ Sonny Liston. But amidst the revelry their conversations turn to the power and responsibility of being a celebrity in the Black liberation movement’s early years. What’s great about the script is that it isn’t dogmatic or preachy. It’s the kind of conversation old friends might have, peppered with jokes and digs and a heated disagreement or two along the way.
The film opens with introductions to each of the men showing where they are in their lives, and how despite their status, racism is still always present. Jim Brown’s is the most ugly gut punch, but none of them are immune. But then the film shifts to the fight and the party in Malcolm’s motel room. Party may be a stretch since it’s just the four of them, and since Malcolm is a Muslim, there’s no alcohol. But there is ice cream in the freezer, and camaraderie galore. Clay is moving towards joining the Nation of Islam and invited Malcolm to Miami for spiritual support. Cooke is in Miami for a gig at a white’s only club. And Brown is just transitioning from football to a movie career. But Malcolm can’t let the night pass without questioning what all the others are doing for the cause. And it’s a fascinating and engrossing conversation.
While the film is adapted from a play, King has opened it enough that it feels cinematic. She takes the men out of the room at times and creates spaces for one on one conversations. And it’s a very smart script, adapted by the playwright Kemp Powers (Soul). But it would not be so absorbing without the wonderful performances of the four leads. Eli Goree channels Ali’s speech and youthful strut to a tee. And Leslie Odom Jr.’s Sam Cooke is the perfect combination of smooth and fragile. Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X is particularly moving. He’s not the driven militant that we’re accustomed to from film and real life clips. He’s a caring friend steering his brothers to be better men, from love and respect. I thoroughly enjoyed this film and expect it will pick up a number of Oscar noms. It’s streaming on Amazon and is a must see!
It is “inspired by a true story,” since in fact they did get together, even if not much is known about the encounter.
[Mainstream Chick’s take: One Night in Miami was one of my favorite films out of the virtual Middleburg Film Festival back in October – mostly for the amazing ensemble of actors embodying these iconic figures. I’m not as sold as Arty Chick on the movie having that strong a cinematic vibe as opposed to a stage play vibe, but it does leave you with a feeling of: ‘it is kinda cool to be a fly on the wall’ in the room where that conversation (mighta sorta) happened! Especially in the context of our current sociopolitical environment. Kudos to Regina King for proving she can shine behind the camera as well as in front of it! -hb]