There’s no disputing that 2020 has been a pretty shoddy year. Unless, of course, your name is Regina King. The Oscar-winning actress not only led the phenomenal Watchmen series, picking up an Emmy for her efforts, but has also made her directorial debut. One Night in Miami, based on the original play by screenwriter Kemp Powers (Soul), is a fictional account of the historic night of February 25th, 1964, where four icons came together.
The four icons in focus are boxer Cassius Clay (soon to be Muhammad Ali), Civil Rights activist Malcolm X, King of Soul Sam Cooke and NFL superstar turned actor Jim Brown. These men, good friends meeting to celebrate Clay’s shock win over Sonny Liston to become Heavyweight Champion, all face pivotal moments in their young lives that would go on to change the course of Civil Rights.
These men, without their knowledge at the time, would go on to become some of the most heralded figures in history. However, One Night in Miami poignantly pinpoints their positions in Black history, particularly with reference to the Civil Rights Movement. It asks so many questions for the future, whilst being grounded by a story with bitter parallels between history and the present day.
Powers’ screenplay is layered with an emotional story and crackling dialogue that highlights so many aspects of these great men. Their personalities, identities and internal struggles are all realised as the film plays out almost like one long conversation, with the focus constantly switching. The script’s pacing is perfect, allowing room for debate, introspection and offering a timely message that the issues facing these colossal figures are still so sadly in the spotlight today.
Equally, the respect for the icons in question is made abundantly clear, not in the sense of pandering but an acknowledgement of their truly outstanding achievements. King and Powers ensure you feel the power these men harnessed, effortlessly creating an immediate connection between cinema and reality.
Where King’s direction and Powers’ writing are given the ultimate complement is with the four sublime performances that elevate the film. With no real lead performance, it was up to each actor to nail their respective moments in the spotlight, which they do without flaw. Eli Goree exceeds even Will Smith’s performance in Ali as the young, outrageously charismatic Clay, capturing his infectious personality and offering an unseen rawness to one of history’s greatest figures. As Jim Brown, Aldis Hodge continues to impress with a charming, mostly understated and emotionally reserved display, whilst showing an excellent ability to offer well-timed levity.
Taking on the role of Sam Cooke, with a powerful, instantly recognisable voice known all over the world, must be a daunting prospect for any actor. Step forward, Leslie Odom Jr. The Hamilton breakout dazzles as ‘The Man Who Invented Soul’, perfectly capturing the essence of Cooke. His dynamism on-screen, electric chemistry with his cast-mates and the stunning, tear-jerking rendition of A Change Is Gonna Come performed at the film’s conclusion caps off a remarkable performance.
The pick of the bunch in One Night in Miami, however, is British up and comer Kingsley Ben-Adir (Peaky Blinders). Any portrayal of the near-mythical character that was Malcolm X is always a challenge. Ben-Adir rises to it and then some, superbly delivering potent monologues that pose tough questions to both the characters and the audience. His line delivery is exceptional, the accent-work flawless and his mannerisms make for such compelling viewing. Equally, he carries much of the film’s emotional weight on his more than capable shoulders, realising Malcolm’s paranoia and fears brilliantly to create an emotional connection with the audience.
The only place where One Night in Miami might lack is from a technical perspective. For a film that’s production and costume design captures the era so well, it’s a shame that it doesn’t result in more powerful imagery. Much of the film’s power comes from the affecting execution of the script, yet on a visual level, it doesn’t quite match this sadly. There’s a terrific spot of editing during the film’s final sequences, but generally speaking, there’s not too much to rave about technically.
What One Night in Miami lacks in any outstanding technical elements, it more than makes up for with an exceptionally executed story. Regina King’s directing is assured, her style complementing Kemp Powers’ brilliantly adapted screenplay. This story is delivered by a terrific ensemble of actors, perhaps whose greatest plaudit is that critics are divided about which performance is the standout. One Night in Miami, whilst a fictitious retelling of a historical night, feels utterly relevant and provides a poignant reminder of the importance of equality. One would think this film will generate some serious awards buzz.
Words by Elliott Jones
Other reviews from the London Film Festival can be found here.