Director: Regina King

Cast: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr.

Genre: Period drama

The Oscar season is fast approaching (nominations will be announced on March 15) and there are some films sure to garner acting and technical nominations. One such film is ‘One Night in Miami’. This period film, directed by actor Regina King in her directorial debut, is adapted from the play of the same name by Kemp Powers. ‘One Night in Miami’ is inspired by true events in 1964, when famous African-American figures Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown gathered together to party at a Miami hotel to celebrate Cassius’ boxing win.

For the uninitiated, Malcolm X was a civil rights activist who was much hated by the American press and public in the 1960s. His firm views on white society and a call for radical black unity differed from the more diplomatic, non-violent approach of Martin Luther King Jr. Today, in the era of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement, Mr X’s ardent opposition to white liberalism and norms ring truer than ever.

Meeting Malcolm X on this fateful night of February 1964 were Cassius Clay (the boxing champion who went on to become the great Muhammad Ali), popstar and icon Sam Cooke, and American footballer Jim Brown. These four legendary African-American men getting together for a night out in segregation-era America is an intriguing premise, ripe with potential for explosive emotion, intellectual discussion and rallying cries. The true events of that night in Miami when these four men got together is today, a legend. Much has been guessed about what exactly these men, summoned by Malcolm X (who was the eldest of the four), could have discussed that night. Why did these influential personalities get together? Was it an ordinary party or was it…. a meeting for the next big protest?

Kingsley Ben-Adir, who plays Malcolm X, has a commanding presence and it almost seems like he was possessed by the militant leader’s spirit in the film. This is made even more impressive by the fact that Ben-Adir is British, not American like his character. Also, we are so used to seeing Malcolm X as a notorious and one-dimensional ‘white-hating Che Guevara-like figure (thanks to American media), but Ben-Adir expertly shows us a more gentle side of this revolutionary man.

Eli Goree (who plays Cassius Clay aka Muhammad Ali) injects humour and warmth into this film, with his innocent and optimistic portrayal of Cassius, who was the youngest of the four.

Leslie Odom Jr. is a joy to behold as the charismatic and impeccably dressed pop star Sam Cooke. The multi-talented Odom Jr., who is also a singer, sings marvellously in many scenes, almost sounding like Sam Cooke himself. What’s more, he also co-wrote the original song for the film called ‘Speak Now’ with Sam Ashworth. Along with Eli Goree, Odom Jr. brings much-needed levity to this intense film.

And finally, there is the intense Aldis Hodge. Playing American football legend Jim Brown, Hodge has a very interesting face that can tell a story of its own. There is a powerful scene towards the end of the film where Hodge’s mostly silent character gives Malcolm X (who had been doing much of the talking) a dressing down. He confronts Malcolm about his almost joy-crushing activism and inspects whether Malcolm’s light skin has a part to play in him trying to prove himself as a black man. Having dark skin, Brown argues, people like him have had it much harder than people like Malcolm ever will, and that sometimes living a comfortable and happy life is the best revenge against a society that hates him and his people. Hodge does great in this one scene. However, the streak is lost in the rest of the movie where he appears worn out, bored even. His deliveries feel weak and Hodge comes off as trying to get done with the shoot so he can just go home.

The film also has a very interesting subplot where Malcolm plays the role of spiritual counsellor to Cassius. One scene shows them offering namaaz to Allah. Another scene shows Sam and Jim interrogating Cassius about his newly-held Muslim beliefs and Cassius defending them. This is very bold of the screenwriter Kemp Powers (also the writer of the play) and Regina King, as they take the time to focus on the sensitive topic of faith which other films might have shied away from. My only problem is that they’re too careful with it. Almost as if looking away with discomfort, the camera cuts off to uninvolved actors whenever a heated debate around faith is going on. The cuts seem tonally unnecessary and jarring.

‘One Night in Miami’ is the directorial debut of actor Regina King (‘Watchmen’, ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’). There is not much for King to do as a director in this film except directing actors and then pointing the camera to film them. There is no indication on the internet that King comes from a theatre background and that is clear to see in this film. The picture has an obvious play-feeling to it. One is reminded again and again of the fact that it was based on a play and is definitely faithful to it to the last word, because the camera staging and the actors’ movements seem like they are on stage, acting out the play. This quality is reminiscent of 2016’s Oscar-tipped movie ‘Fences’, which also had an unshakeable ‘play’ feeling. Perhaps if there were moments of silence and less talk, ‘One Night in Miami’ could have had that true cinematic quality that could advance it in the Oscar race. This is not to say that excessive talk sinks the quality of a picture. There is a correct, but tricky, way to tackle speech-heavy material. Director Mike Leigh, who was a theatre director for a considerable time, is great with dialogue-heavy scripts, and actors sit and talk for 30 minutes.

Leigh installs a rather famous method that involves extensive workshops with his actors. He sits down with them to discuss the psychologies of their characters, fleshing out back stories for them which do not even appear, or get hinted at, in the final cut. If we go further back in time, Jacques Rivette and Ingmar Bergman, who came from theatre backgrounds, expertly filmed dialogue-heavy, play-adapted scripts and managed to transcend the feeling of the film to beyond the play. And then we have the fast-talking screwball comedies from 1930s Hollywood when countless burlesque and stage actors transitioned from stage to sound films and made some unforgettable play-based films. Perhaps it takes a stage director/personality to make a convincing film that is based on a play. Director Regina King is not from a theatre background and that’s why it shows. Despite all this, it is a commendable effort. This is only her first film and it’s a good one. I would like to see what Ms King directs next. 

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