One Night in Miami movie review: Regina King's riveting debut traps four Black icons in a motel room
- One Night in Miami movie review: Debutante director Regina King extracts terrific performances from her four leading men, in a high-concept drama about power and responsibility.
One Night in Miami
Director - Regina King
Cast - Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Leslie Odom Jr, Aldis Hodge
Every community relies on its cultural icons. In moments of upheaval, they’re the ones who can mobilise the masses with their power and popularity, and shine a light on matters that would otherwise have been ignored. Which is also why, in times of uncertainty, they’re the first to be targeted by the establishment.
In India right now, it has taken the collective might of Punjabi superstars to regularly remind the nation's 1.8 billion people of the plight of the farmers who them.
Watch the One Night in Miami trailer here
Adapted from a play by Kemp Powers, whose premise genuinely sounds like it was inspired by a question that he was asked a party, One Night in Miami imagines a fictional meeting of four Black icons, against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement in America.
To celebrate his unexpected victory against Sonny Liston in 1964, Cassius Clay, played by Eli Goree, arrives at a Miami motel room, where he is joined by football star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr), and the revolutionary leader, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). He intends on announcing to the world that as of that moment, he must no longer be addressed as Cassius Clay, but as Muhammad Ali.
One Night in Miami, like so many adaptations of plays, is a chamber piece. But debutante director Regina King seems to be deliberately trying to make the story as cinematic as possible. Unlike, say, the recent Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which was restricted to a couple of indoor locations, characters in One Night in Miami routinely leave the motel room on one pretext or another.
By expanding the visual scope of the story, King gives the narrative some room to breathe. This sounds like a great idea on paper — spending a couple of hours locked inside a plain room with four alpha males can get suffocating — but these excursions significantly deflate the drama. I’d have preferred to be locked in with them, with no easy escape routes available.
But this approach allows for certain characters to have private moments, without three others being present in close vicinity at all times. So when Sam storms off in a huff after Malcolm accuses him of kowtowing to the white man, it gives the rather stately Jim Brown an opportunity to take the firebrand leader aside. Aldis Hodge plays the football great as a man of few words. His opinions carry a certain weight. And in those brief moments alone with him, Jim asks Malcolm if, as a light-skinned Black person, he is insecure about his Blackness.
One Night in Miami plays out like a last-ditch attempt by Malcolm to mobilise three people that he has identified as the future leadership of the Black community, almost as if he knows his time has come.
It’s utterly absorbing to watch him interact with Cassius, as the young champion has second thoughts about becoming a ‘Mooslim’. The irony is that Malcolm at the time was on the verge of severing ties with the Nation of Islam. A year later, he would be assassinated by its members.
The ideological bouts in the motel room are almost as powerful as the physical fight that Cassius had mere hours ago. While the champ struggles with the implications of his decision, a decision that he seems to have rushed into, Sam Cooke is forced to reckon with certain realities. Malcolm suggests that Sam has squandered his potential as a thought leader in his community by pandering to a white audience. Sam retaliates by accusing Malcolm of using Cassius as a brand ambassador for his new religious offshoot.
Tempers flare and King, displaying an admirable command over the material, puts the viewer bang in the middle of the confrontations — you aren’t a fly on the wall, but an active participant. This, essentially, is the central ‘message’ that the film is trying to convey — that the time for fence-sitting is over. You can no longer be an observer. This idea was explored very recently by director Steve McQueen, in Mangrove, the first film of his anthology series, Small Axe.
King, an Oscar-winning actor herself, regularly peels away the brash exterior of these men, and exposes their insecurities. The acting is top-notch, across the board.
One Night in Miami is a call to action. It suggests that even though certain battles may have been won, the war is far from over. Years may go by before the metaphorical significance of vanilla ice cream is understood, but this film’s spirit will never diminish.
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The author tweets @RohanNaahar