This isn’t Regina King’s first time in a director’s chair. The Academy Award winning actress — whose performance in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk still reverberates — throughout her storied acting career has helm episodes for some of television’s biggest shows, such as This Is Us, Insecure, and Scandal. Her directing a film was only a matter of time. And oh, has she arrived with a standout.
The concept is simple yet intriguing: What if four of the most culturally significant Black men of the early-1960’s — Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) — got together on one special night? No one’s really sure what was talked about at this dream meeting, of course. But what if we did know? King offers the answer. Her film, One Night in Miami… offers a melting pot — which not only debates the prevalent paths toward Black liberation available in the 1960’s — economic, artistic, intellectual, spiritual, and political freedom — but urgently expresses the discussions that still rage today. More than a sentimental “what if,” King’s One Night in Miami… is a blistering feature debut replete with visceral performances from its cast.
Adapted by Kemp Powers from his play of the same name, the story opens in 1963 with each historical figure in their respective life. For instance, Clay (Eli Goree) is fighting Henry Cooper in Wembley Park, London. At the Copacabana, Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom) prepares to go on stage; Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) visits a “friend” (Beau Bridges) on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia. And Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) rests at home with his wife Betty Shabazz (Joaquina Kalukango). Whether they know it or not, each man is facing an internal crisis.
The pacing of One Night in Miami…, initially, struggles to build up speed while assembling these four giants, especially because Kemp wants to provide sufficient background for where each character sits on their timeline. Even so, by the time the film fast forwards to 1964 Miami, on the eve of Clay’s heavyweight bout with Sonny Liston, King’s drama begins to gain traction through Cooke’s arc. The famed singer is trying to break into white spaces, such as the Copacabana, and the partially segregated hotel The Fountain Bloom. Meanwhile, Malcolm X and Clay take up residence at the Black motels. The difference between quality — Cooke’s opulent pad as opposed to Malcolm’s simple arrangements — speaks to the hollowness of separate but equal.
King’s film is filled with these small, yet impactful details. For instance, while speaking to Malcolm, Betty cites Elijah Muhammad’s personal failings as marks against the Nation of Islam’s character — which partially explains Malcolm’s want to leave the organization. When Malcolm and Clay pray in the former’s hotel room, King juxtaposes exterior shots of the motel’s carefree pool atmosphere and interior images of the pair’s simple meditation. The moment metaphorically expresses Malcolm’s internal struggle: the temptations of the outside world versus his safe spiritual peace.
But the heart of this historical drama occurs when the quartet are thrown together in Malcolm’s room for a “celebration” of Clay’s victory. Rather than jubilation — Malcolm hilariously only has vanilla ice cream for his purported party — philosophical tensions arise. Malcolm doesn’t believe Cooke is doing enough for the Black liberation movement through his poppy apolitical songs; whereas Cooke questions the former’s adherence to the hypocritical Elijah Muhammad. For his part, Clay is still struggling with whether he even wants to convert to Islam. And Brown gravitates as the sole calming influence in the room.
The magic of King’s film isn’t just the discussions occurring between the men — featuring arguments cutting to the core of their respective insecurities — but how each actor rises above artifice. So many actors have given their best Ali impression — Will Smith memorably received an Oscar nomination for his — but Goree floats outside the bounds of a cheap impersonation. He adds legitimate depth beneath the famously confident veneer of the champ by expressing his all-too-real fears. While Odom isn’t a mirror image of Cooke, he absolutely nails the timbre and cadence of the singer’s voice. Ben-Adir — who had the toughest task of following up Denzel Washington’s enrapturing performance — imbues the minister with a purposely rote tone that speaks to the man’s internal conflict. But Hodge, especially, in Brown’s monotone voice, somehow finds the sharpest anger and the most congenial sense of humor in equal measure. King culls fantastic performances from them all.
Every portion of One Night in Miami… — from Francine Jamison-Tanchuck’s swanky costume designs to Tami Reiker’s vibrant photography — immerses us in the era. The simple set of a hotel room — which owes to Kemp’s original play — also suspends us within the moment and allows scenes to explode with the force of a powder keg. More impressively though, Kemp is able to rely on biopic tropes — Malcolm on a whim will share that he’s writing an autobiography, Cooke speaks about his new unheard song “A Change is Gonna Come,” Jim Brown recounts filming Rio Conchos, and Ali remembers hanging out with the Beatles — without these bits of exposition, and period details, feeling forced. That’s partly to due with the earnestness the actors deliver their lines with and King’s thoughtful staging.
But amid debates pertaining to pandering to white audiences, the Nation’s dark underbelly, and colorism — One Night in Miami… is funny. The quartet endearingly rib each other at every point, and there are some true laugh out loud moments. King balances the levity with a sense of the surreal. For instance, Brown exclaims, “This is one strange night.” And it is. The bringing together of people who are essentially ghosts now — only Brown is still alive today — to figure out what they would agree or disagree about, inherently carries with it a strange sense of wonder. But in King’s feature debut, what rises to the top is love. Because no matter their large egos, they are all fighting for the autonomous nature of Black lives. King’s One Night in Miami… is a fitting tribute to their struggle, and one of 2020’s best films.
An official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival 2020