‘One Night in Miami’ Review: One Terrific Historical Drama
By Daniel Rester
One Night in Miami continues Regina King’s winning streak as of late. She won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her work on If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) and a Lead Actress Emmy for her work on the TV show Watchmen (2019). Now she’s gaining awards buzz again for One Night in Miami, only this time it is for her work behind the camera. The film marks her feature directorial debut, though she has directed a lot of television work before.
Based on the stage play by Kemp Powers (who also wrote the screenplay), One Night in Miami tells a fictionalized version of a real night in February of 1964 where four legends hung out in a hotel room. The men are activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), football player Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and musician Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), all black males dealing with the tumultuous era in their own ways. They gather together to celebrate after Clay becomes the world heavyweight champion after his famous win over Sonny Liston.
Powers’ script and King’s direction take influence from how the men acted in real life in order to capture what it was likely like in that hotel room, since little is actually known about what went down (other than them getting vanilla ice cream apparently). The men’s personalities and friendships shine through believably in lighthearted ways, like when they tease Malcolm by taking away his camera. Their more dramatic motivations and accomplishments also surface in conversation too though.
One of the core conflicts involves how Cassius is influenced by Malcolm, a Muslim, as he plans to publicly announce he is joining the Nation of Islam; this is something he did end up doing in reality, along with changing his name to Muhammad Ali. However, Cassius doesn’t know that Malcolm plans on leaving that group himself. Another main issue addressed is how Malcolm thinks Sam should be doing more with his music and stature in order to comment on social issues involving the black community.
King does a beautiful job at staging everything, challenging herself with her first feature by trying to make a film based on a one-act play not feel like a play. The source material does show sometimes, with a lot of the drama taking place in a single hotel room, but King and cinematographer Tami Reiker manage to open up the room by placing the camera in creative ways and having the actors move around a lot. Editor Tariq Anwar takes advantage of this and finds a smooth flow in portraying the actions and dialogue exchanges.
When the film isn’t inside of the hotel room, King is also challenging herself with some interesting set pieces. She places us inside the ring as Clay fights Liston, displaying a fierce physical battle as a warmup to the verbal battles to come. Another standout section involves a flashback to one of Cooke’s concerts where he had issues with sound equipment. It’s a rousing bit of filmmaking that even a veteran filmmaker would have had trouble with, but King pulls it off expertly. Throughout these scenes and the long hotel sequences, King is aided by subtle but spot-on costume design and production design. I always felt like I was in the 1960s with these larger than life characters.
Though the characters are titans of the 20th century, Powers and King aren’t afraid of bringing the men down to human levels. The dialogue of course contains messages about the fights during the Civil Rights Movement, but it rarely feels forced. Instead it flows naturally as the men relate the world around them to their enjoyment of music, individual experiences with racism, potential opportunities, etc. The Sam and Malcolm conflict is focused on a bit too much, with a predictable outcome as to what song Cooke eventually ends up writing, but that’s a minor complaint because the drama and dialogue work the majority of the time.
The main reason they work is because of the cast. All four of the main men are amazing. Ben-Adir manages to make Malcolm X his own despite the memory of Denzel Washington’s performance likely on a lot of people’s minds. He captures the passionate intensity and subtle nervousness (he was being followed by the FBI) of X perfectly. Goree, meanwhile, is a powerhouse with his display of the young, loud-mouthed, and energetic Clay. Hodge has the most relaxed performance as Brown, who was in a career transition from football to acting at the time (having just starred in the Western film Rio Conchos). Though he is less showy with the dialogue, Hodge is still very impressive in how he does a lot with his facial expressions and in his setups for the other actors to bounce off of him.
My favorite of the bunch, however, is Odom Jr. I’ve been waiting for years for a Sam Cooke biopic because I’m a huge fan of the musician. While this film doesn’t exclusively focus on Cooke, Odom Jr. still brings him alive in a wonderful way. If Ben-Adir is the most dramatic, Goree the most energetic, and Hodge the most quiet, then Odom Jr. is a perfect balance of all three characteristics. He makes Cooke a completely relatable artist while also displaying some impressive singing. This is a performance that deserves a Best Supporting Actor Oscar win.
One Night in Miami is a shining feature debut by King and one of the best films of 2020. A few hiccups aside, it is beautifully written, crafted, and acted. The film had a small theater run at the end of the year 2020 and is now available for its main release streaming on Amazon Prime. Don’t miss it.
My Grade: 9.2/10 (letter grade equivalent: A)
Running Time: 1h 54min