If 2020 had reminded us of nothing else, it’s that we’ll never really break past a racial divide if the tear can never heal. It was true this year, and just as true back in 1964, back when a few goodhearted individuals immediately felt there needed to be a conversation about, at last. Regina King has captured that loosely fictitious conversion, once a hard-hitting play by Kemp Powers, into a star-studded, ebullient feature directorial debut. One Night in Miami is nothing short of a rapturous interpretation of a greater issue. Heroes putting their heads together around a common problem, working the closest they can to a common solution. Not anything we haven’t seen in film before, but here it feels more consequential, haunting even.
The premise of Powers’ tale feels very ingenious, once we can look past the very idea of it being the punchline to a long-form joke. It’s February 26, 1964. The night of the famous Cassius Clay/Sonny Liston fight, a controversial event in its own right. But that only serves as the time-and-place backdrop. In typical fashion for a film adapted out of a straightforward play, much of the action occurs around one single location. In the hours after the fight, Clay (Eli Goree) is pulled into the hotel room of activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), with whom he’s been consulting on transitioning into the Muslim faith. He would announce changing his name to Muhammad Ali the next day, despite agonizing hesitation. Also waiting in this room is Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr), a popular crooner tired of music that isn’t speaking to just his race. As well as Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), an NFL running back desperate to get out of sports and into acting.
Getting these four folks into the room is easy enough, so is keeping them in once Malcolm locks the key, forcing them to stay put. There’s much they need to discuss, whether they wish to talk or not. Malcolm’s the great instigator here, pushing everyone’s buttons, while hiding his own panicked insecurities with the Nation of Islam, looking to radicalize his affiliation in sync with Ali’s announcement. King places the audiences as genuine fly-on-the-wall observers, watching and walking along with them as they break down and comb through their opinions, and their concerns in playing black male role models with a firm stance on conquering over systemic injustice. The odds are high, which ratchets the tension higher and higher until it gets to be unbearable.
I could only suspect this story could prove to be more electrically charged in a live atmosphere, but on screen it’s hard not to sense the equal parts animosity and rapport this quartet share in their conversation. King maintains a steady consistency in her direction, extracting a very raw emotional response out of each. We get enough of a background between all four at the beginning, Brown’s being the most vocal after an encounter with a white southern property owner (Beau Bridges) turns sour in a hasty dash. Hodge reciprocates with a slick cockiness easily jangling Malcolm’s nerves further.
Ben-Adir, who was a spritely charmer in last year’s holiday comedy Noelle, rises to a glorious occasion in one of his finest performances to date playing the social figurehead whose time was clearly running short, a serious straight guy who’s a ball of energy. Odom answers this with a gangbusters portrayal of a slightly eschewed Cooke, but no less intellectual and adamant toward his beliefs, put on the masthead while the argument ensues. The only individual who struggles to add a significant amount of weight on the conversational tone is Goree playing Ali. He’s a refreshing enough face in the character, albeit reluctantly taking a backseat to the other three.
Such is the dynamics of the play; each side still adds something, even when it’s not as balanced as it should be. The brief fleeting moments where characters manage to briefly escape through Malcolm’s security detail are enough to maintain their rebelliousness. But King keeps that very short-lived, sharp focus on that one room, hanging onto every word like it were a Shakespearean sonnet, shifting in tone at the drop of a hat. One moment, it’s jovial, other times the quartet are at each other’s throats, desperate to get their say. It all feels like one constant wavelength, and separate fragments. King finds a way to stay consistent on every line, editor Tariq Anwar (American Beauty) lending an added hand on that tense coil, as the talking grows provocative and nearly controversial, at least for the mid 60s.
It is a talk that needed to happen, and given how intense it is to watch just as an audience member, I almost wish it could’ve happened for real. One Night in Miami captures the furious, frustrated spirit of people urging to make reality more livable for all, and calm down the quells of an everlasting racial divide that refuses to disappear. It hurt then, and it hurts just as much for various other reasons in 2020. King delivers a captivating first feature, one for the cinephile’s record books that must be both seen and heard, and then discussed. For a film that’s all just dialogue in a confined space (an angrier My Dinner with Andre, perhaps), and despite its pacing issues and an imbalance in character strengths, it certainly says a lot. Factor in Odom’s few musical performances, and then it just proudly sings its peaceful, subdued protest. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
One Night in Miami opens in select theaters Christmas Day, followed by a bow on Prime Video January 15; rated R for language throughout; 114 minutes.