One Night in Miami is one of the most engrossing films of the year, it sweeps you up and takes you with it until it is ready to leave you. A wonderful feature directorial debut from Regina King.
Based on Kemp Powers’ award-winning stage play, One Night in Miami is the imagined story of what followed 22-year-old Muhammad Ali’s (Eli Goree) 1964 victory over heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Sat ringside are Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). The film explores the personal and political conflicts faced by the men —balancing their public image in a world where the pinnacle of success for a black person was to be a sportsperson or entertainer, alongside their drive to fight for black liberation.
We are introduced to our four men through short stories. With Clay we see him in an early fight, showing all the swagger that a young future champion could have. That is until he is clocked. With Sam we see him perform at the world-renowned Copacabana, to an audience that wants nothing to do with him. The majority leaving before he has even uttered a word. Jim enters the screen meeting Mr Carlton, the discussion is amiable with Carlton showering Brown with praise. That is until Jim offers to help move furniture. The end of this exchange positively stuns as King’s camera draws into the house, leaving Brown motionless standing in the doorway.
Finally, we meet Malcolm who returns home and discusses with his wife the future plans and intentions he has as he hopes to leave the Nation of Islam. This runs for a long but interesting 15 minutes before the title card even shows up. It is also one of the few times we see these men outside of the hotel complex that they will stay in for the rest of the film.
This is a bold choice from King, who obviously knows the strength in the script that was adapted from the stage play. To have One Night in Miami be set for such a large percentage in one single room. But also shows the confidence that she has in her sublime cast. The trust that they can manoeuvre when needed, leave when needed to allow a pair or trio to communicate.
What starts off as a celebratory get together turns into a frank and complex discussion that it seems all but Malcolm X had planned. Malcolm knows that he needed Clay on his side as he separated from the Nation of Islam. He also needs more firepower in celebrity to aid him in bringing more converts to the right direction.
This is an important discussion being made during the events of One Night in Miami and today, right now. Their discussions bring you in as an audience, you want to know where a character is going with his comments, where is X trying to direct them? This discussion of course begins to become heated as the once jovial mood switches to one that has electric energy.
Malcolm and Sam’s butt heads the most as Malcolm feels that Cooke. Despite his fame and fortune has not done enough to bring black people to the conversation. He feels that he is merely appeasing white people so he can get ahead and give those black people below him handouts. Cooke of course feels differently to this attack. This verbal chess match ends when Malcolm thinks he has Cooke in checkmate.
Wisely King breaks us away from the room when required, be it going to telephone boxes or to get some alcohol. This allows the audience to catch their breath as there are few opportunities for us to do so in this emotionally charged film.
Our four leads are absolutely faultless here, Goree perfectly evokes Clay’s demeanour and personality here, brightening the screen when needed. Hodge plays it perfectly as the peacemaker and his freedom in the role allow him to be the level headed character when those around him begin to lose theirs. This is typified in his one to one conversation with Malcolm, towards the end of the picture.
As Malcolm begins to chip at the confidence and self-belief of Cooke we truly see Odom Jr shine as an actor. Starting the film with as much if not more confidence that Clay. He is a person who knows this character and himself. His discussions with Malcolm help show that he was not just cast for his singing. Odom Jr works magic when things become serious.
Finally, we have Ben-Adir who has the almost thankless task of portraying Malcolm X. Trying to remain as calm as possible when required. Almost slipping into the background effortlessly with his soft-spoken voice, he mesmerises here. He is the pin to the film and if his performance is not up to pair then the entire film struggles, but the anguish and stress he presents that Malcolm is experiencing are amazing. He owns the performance.
King allows space between the characters in their scenes, deciding not to rush them with the camera. That step back throughout allows us to really feel the intensity later on as she closes in on her cast. As scenes become more claustrophobic. We feel we need to take a step away, but King has other ideas for her audience. We are to sit and listen to what these men are about to say, we have to listen, it is a tragedy if we do not.
One Night in Miami is a fantastic film and one that needs to be seen and most importantly remembered.
To view more of our reviews as we cover the London Film Festival 2020, please have a gander below!