Director: Regina King | 1h 50mins | Drama
Set on a fictional night in Miami Florida, Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) meet in a hotel room. The discussion drifts from heated to celebratory as they begin to discuss their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.
Regina King’s debut feature is an almost high-concept approach to the historical ‘what if’. Pitting four of the most important and iconic Black Americans in a room together, letting them verbally brawl and debate in the face of the American Civil Rights movement. The film works because it’s so wonderfully engaging, and for a debut filmmaker Regina King is immensely veteran in her approach to creating mood and style.
The set up is that Cassius Clay, soon to be Muhammed Ali, wins his big fight to become champion of the world with Malcolm, Sam and Jim in the crowd cheering him on. Afterwards they meet in Malcolm’s hotel room for what they think is a party, only to find it’s just the four of them and a large pot of ice cream. Very often we wonder what it would be like to have historical figures meet, what would they talk about? Well King’s adaptation of Kemp Powers’ play (who also wrote the screenplay) allows us to experience such a bold idea while never besmirching or preaching to the characters involved.
The importance here is that you have actors who can really handle the pressure of the characters they are playing. But everyone is pitch perfect; Eli Goree is physically commanding and endlessly charismatic as Ali, Hodges is quiet and thoughtful as Jim Brown and Odom Jr is particularly suave as the great Sam Cooke. But it’s Kingsley Ben-Adir who seems to be given the brunt of the emotional scenes, and rightly so. While there is no doubt all four people suffered oppression, Malcolm X’s outspoken opinions and fighting spirit made him enemy No.1 and has all the stress that comes with such a daunting label.
It’s understated how important it is to keep such lengthy conversations interesting when put into a cinematic frame, and King’s capability is equal to that of a season veteran.
The film is full of wonderful verbal jousts, clashing egos and thought processes that are wonderfully balanced by Powers. The biggest conflict we see is between Sam Cooke and Malcolm X, who have very different ideas about how to take power from the white man and put it into the hands of the people suffering. Malcolm believes Sam’s wasting his time pandering to crowds at the Copacabana, whereas Sam believes taking money from a business point of view is far more important. It all comes to heated pause when Malcolm plays Blowin’ In The Wind by Bob Dylan, a song about struggle that Sam’s music has never come close too.
A film based on a play, Regina King does well to shoot and balance such a talky script. It’s understated how important it is to keep such lengthy conversations interesting when put into a cinematic frame, and King’s capability is equal to that of a season veteran. The only problem with basing a film on a play is that dead space you often find in the scene, having to make it feel naturalistic and unnoticeable. It’s not always done in One Night in Miami, but such a brief criticism barely hinders the film’s end product.
This is a film that is part dissection and part discussion, but most importantly it’s a celebration – a celebration of four figures in Black history that stand for more than their fame and success, but the change they pushed for. King’s ability as a director here is wonderfully understated, and we hope that she shows us even more untapped potential in the future.