One Night In Miami (2020)
Director: Regina King
Screenwriter: Kemp Powers
Starring: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Christian Magby
If you could pick any four people in the world and put them in a room together, who would you choose?
For Regina King, those four people would be: The King of Soul, Sam Cooke; civil rights activist, Malcolm X; heavyweight champion boxer, Cassius Clay; and NFL champion, Jim Brown. With her directorial debut, One Night in Miami, King places these four internationally renowned men in a hotel room together and has them partake in a verbal sparring match concerning matters of race, religion and their obligations as black men with voices for change. The story, which comes from Kemp Powers’ stage play of the same name, is a speculative imagining of the events taking place on February twenty-fifth 1964, the night Cassius Clay defeated the supposedly unbeatable Sonny Liston in a title-winning heavyweight championship bout.
Before we arrive in Miami, King takes the time to paint a picture of what racism looks like in 1964. We see Brown (Aldis Hodge) denied entry to his neighbour’s house when he offers to help him move some furniture around, and Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr) perform to a dismissive all-white audience at the Copa Club. Although white America may be tolerant of black figures such as Cooke and Brown achieving fame and success; they certainly do not recognise them as equal. The racism we see directed at these men is an issue of great concern for a young Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), who, at the tender age of twenty-two, is at the start of his monumental career. We see Clay desperate for the friendship and advice of Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) – a figure Clay believes will help guide him as a black man on the cusp of great success within an industry owned by white men.
After Clay – the underdog of the fight – defeats Liston, the four men head back to X’s hotel room to celebrate the monumental victory. Cooke, Brown and Clay are expecting a party, but Malcolm has other ideas for the night and intends for the friends to use the time as an opportunity for discussion. With only vanilla ice cream to sustain them, the icons quickly begin to butt heads. The night takes place during significant pivotal moments for all four men: Clay is approaching his conversion into the Nation Of Islam and his transformation into Muhammad Ali; Jim Brown is on the verge of transitioning careers from sports into acting; and although Sam Cooke and Malcolm X will be shot and killed only a short time after the night in question, both are struggling with the mounting pressures of their work – with Cooke questioning the direction of his music and Malcolm questioning his role in the Nation of Islam.
Their discussion throughout the night speaks to their concerns and frustrations as individuals who are unsure of the road ahead. Previous on-screen depictions of Malcolm X and Cassius Clay, in such films as Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and Michael Mann’s Ali, appear straight-forward and to the point, with the movies seeming more concerned with their actions and politics, rather than the personhood of the men themselves. In One Night in Miami, however, King’s eye as a woman makes space to humanise and expose the vulnerabilities of these men. In their searching discussions, King punctures their masculinity and uses visible emotion to give urgency to their words and weight to their frustrations.
The real substance of the film is in the fascinating clash of Malcolm and Sam. Malcolm accuses Sam of making music to please white people when he could be making music that speaks to the necessity of the civil rights movement and the importance of black representation. Sam reveals that he permitted The Rolling Stones to cover Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now”, a decision, he admits, Womack was furious about until he started receiving the royalty checks. Sam intelligently argues his case to Malcolm, illustrating how he is working the system from the inside. In his rebuttal, and in an attempt to sting Sam, Malcolm plays a Bob Dylan record. “How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man” sings Dylan, to which Malcolm reacts with fury. He asks why the music of a white man from Minnesota feels more politically charged than anything Sam Cooke has ever recorded. Jim Brown adds extra layers to their conversation when he points out that Cooke is the only one of them not waiting on a white man’s check, and when he quizzes Malcolm on the true origins of his militancy. Each man argues with eloquence, but King doesn’t attempt to iron out the issues raised here neatly; it’s impossible to put the world to rights from the comforts of a hotel room. Still, the director’s sentiment is keenly felt in Malcolm’s words when he desperately points out that black people are dying on the streets and that ‘there is no room to be sitting on the fence’.
One Night in Miami doesn’t attempt to hide from its theatrical origins. King uses the claustrophobia of the small hotel room to bring added tension to her sizable chunks of weighty dialogue. This isn’t to say that the film is not cinematic: cinematographer, Tami Reiker, keeps tensions moving through an artistic assortment of varying vantage points, and King keeps the action on its toes by getting her characters out of the hotel room as much as possible, taking them to the roof, the car-park and the local liquor store – demonstrating that she knows exactly when to give her scenes the space they need to breathe. The most innovative example of this comes when King has Malcolm describe the first time he saw Sam perform live. We flashback to the show; the sound fails and the band fleas, leaving Cooke to stand alone before an unruly crowd. He quiets the rumbling chaos of their anger, asks them to chant together, and begins to sing acapella over the music of their united voices. It’s a deeply poignant moment; one that brings to mind the undivided voices of the present-day Black Lives Matter movement. King may play with theatrics, but moments such as this speak to her power as a filmmaker.
One Night in Miami is a tenderly crafted, poetic film of monumental importance. “Regina King, Academy Award-winning best director”? It certainly has a nice ring to it.