TIFF 2020 Review: ‘One Night in Miami’ Is a Celebration of Art, Culture, and History

One Night in Miami featured image

“One Night in Miami” — Courtesy of Amazon Studios

After winning multiple Emmys and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, Regina King is ready to make her mark behind the camera with her stunning film, One Night in Miami.

Screenwriter Kemp Powers adapts his own play, which brings together Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr), and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) on the night Clay won the world heavyweight boxing championship in a stunning upset over Sonny Liston. The night is February 25, 1964, and every moment is infused with the sense that change is in the air. This will later be capped off with a stirring rendition of Cooke’s song, A Change Is Gonna Come. The journey to that moment is an important one that gives us the opportunity to see these real-life friends in ways they haven’t been presented on screen before.

We first meet each man separately, getting glimpses into where they are in life. Clay, who is about to announce his conversion to Islam and his new name, Muhammad Ali, fights Henry Cooper in London. Soul singer-songwriter Sam Cooke has a disastrous debut at the Copacabana. NFL star Jim Brown has a seemingly friendly conversation with a neighbor (Beau Bridges) on St. Simon’s Island. And Malcolm X is home with his wife (Joaquina Kalukango) while trouble brews within the Nation of Islam. They are all on the cusp of something, even if they don’t know it yet.

Most of One Night in Miami takes place in Malcolm’s hotel room at Hampton House in Brownsville. It is inspired by a conversation that really took place, even if the details aren’t widely known. The four friends eat ice cream (vanilla, which they joke about) and talk. Sometimes they argue. United in the common goal of equality for Black people, they differ on how best to achieve it, and on whether it’s a possibility at all. They discuss philosophy, history, art. They confess to questioning the things they seem so confident about. Each has a lot on his mind, and there are no easy answers.

Moving from the stage to the screen can present some challenges. Keeping a story engaging, especially when it is mostly set in a single location, is not easy. But King uses every inch of space throughout the hotel suite, and occasionally ventures outside, to keep a feeling of movement rather than confinement. It would be easy for a film like this to become claustrophobic, but big ideas and concepts need room to breathe. King gives them the space to unfold.

The chemistry between the actors is electric. Each performer embodies his legendary figure with a rich complexity. This isn’t a fantastical imagining of a meeting between significant historical people. It is an evening of friends spending time together. Friends who are men with feelings and thoughts and ideas and flaws. Their humanity and individuality are every bit as important as what they have and will accomplish. They laugh easily, share interests outside of the things that made them famous, and genuinely care about and support one another. Although Malcolm has reasons to worry about his future, the evening is not weighed down with the knowledge two of them are in the final year of their lives. Who they were and what they did matters, but this story is firmly set in its present: Miami in February 1964.

Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Kingsley Ben-Adir, and Leslie Odom Jr are magnificent. All of them are so beautifully and intrinsically connected that it feels unfair to compare them and say anyone is better than any other. King’s direction and Powers’ script provide each of them with opportunities to shine and all four actors take their turns without overshadowing one another.

One Night in Miami is a powerful blend of artistry onscreen and behind the scenes. Tami Reiker‘s cinematography and Terence Blanchard‘s original score keep the pace and tone flowing from light and optimistic to frustrated to a jubilant celebration. Production designer Page Buckner and costumer designer Francine Jamison-Tanchuck create a world that feels lived in and real while beautifully reconstructing one of the most famous locations from the segregated south.

This film is a beautiful experience. In the strange year that 2020 has been, One Night in Miami will stand out as a true gift to cinema.

One Night in Miami premiered at the Venice Film Festival and is an official selection at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released later this year.

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