LFF 2020: ‘One Night in Miami’ Review: Regina King Brings Power and Personality to the Table

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It’s the coolest party of the year, yet only four people are invited. Sound unlikely? Consider this: it’s 1964, and the guest list consists of Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Malcolm X. Welcome to One Night in Miami, the hangout film to end all hangout films — equal parts thrilling drama, riveting conversation, exquisite visual detail, and breathtaking performances. What’s more, the beloved Regina King helms it in her feature directorial debut, realizing Kemp Powers’ script based on his play of the same name. The setup is outstanding, and the experience as delightful as it sounds. 

In February of 1964, Ali (then Cassius Clay) defeated Sonny Liston in an upset and became a heavyweight champion at twenty-two, a well-known fact. Less well-known is who he celebrated with. Though the concept of Powers’ play may seem fanciful, the basis is true: Brown, Cooke, and Malcolm were at the fight and toasted their buddy after it. Accounts are spotty, but word has it the four of them spent the evening talking and eating ice cream in Malcolm’s hotel suite — for one night, four of the most influential Black men in history enjoyed each other’s company. Powers imagines the dialogue, of course, but knowing it happened is enough to take the breath away.

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Before this, Miami adds ample context. Introductory sequences are masterfully composed, offering a glimpse at each person’s career and personality. From the first moment Eli Goree displays his uncanny embodiment of Ali, or Aldis Hodge speaks in Brown’s distinctively mellifluous tone, the viewer will know they are in good hands. The other two leads are less seamless impersonations, but still capture essential elements of the figures’ respective spirits: Kingsley Ben-Adir plays Malcolm as a self-conscious but charming intellectual, while Hamilton‘s Leslie Odom Jr. focuses on the romantic and defensive sides of Cooke. King signposts how each man will be featured from the offset, a clever move considering all of these men have backstories and legacies so complex that to try and address them in their totality would exhaust the project’s energy.

One drawback may be the amount of supplementary knowledge necessary to fully appreciate Miami. Without heavy helpings of context, it might come off as opaque. To his credit, Powers includes expositional references to background details, such as Malcolm’s fundamental grievances with the Nation of Islam, Brown’s tense history with white NFL representatives, Cooke’s insecurities about his mostly white fanbase, and Ali’s unprecedented level of independence as a Black athlete. Malcolm and Brown are given thorough characterizations; many viewers will come out of this with a renewed understanding of Malcolm’s journey from condemning white devils to embracing the need for brotherhood, while Brown is neatly presented as an eternally cool, thoughtful figure. As the only surviving member of this fascinating foursome, he deserves respect for his impact on American history.

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The conversation ranges from friendly banter to excoriating arguments about their dedication to Black liberation. They express their distinct perspective believably — Malcolm stern, Brown immovable, Ali boisterous, and Cooke charming — but with attendant nuance whenever their worldviews are challenged. Miami is filled with eminently engrossing ensemble dialogue, but the side conversations between two of them at a time are the most captivating. The moments in which Brown and Malcolm converse privately carry the most weight. Before this, Malcolm explodes at Cooke for his failure to sufficiently address ‘the cause’ in his music, and the four briefly split up; Brown smoothly illustrates to Malcolm that Cooke does not deserve such harshness. Each of them, he says, have different talents, different audiences, and therefore different approaches, though Malcolm maintains that despite their diversity, each of them can still be “weapons.” Brown calmly responds, “we are not anyone’s weapons,” and on the verge of tears, Malcolm snaps back: “you need to be… for us to win.” No one is wrong, but all have room to grow — the takeaway is up to you.

Most outstanding about Miami is that no single moment is an easy watch. The cocktail of pride, pain, dignity, and pleasure that comprise the African-American experience emanates from every shot, every movement, every glance, and every detail. Even when the men gleefully tease each other and express brotherly love, King makes sure the conscious viewer understands that men so impactful and inspirational to millions were under immense threat at the time — unfortunately, too many of their ilk still are.

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We are encouraged to consider our understanding of the same fundamental questions these legendary figures discuss. King’s choices of staging and Powers’ language imply the answers to these questions are never clear but are always affected by self-perception. Like many outstanding pieces of theatre and outstanding films that translate theatrical experiences to the screen, Miami lets all these questions and more enter and fall where they may — supported by brisk pace, hilarious dialogue, and compelling performances to match.

It is impossible to pick a standout from the four actors, though Hodge is particularly magnetic. Either way, King certainly has a knack for directing her actors and tightening production because nothing drags for a second, and no line comes off as under-rehearsed. Best of all, this deeply meaningful experience is also fun. For anyone interested in a genuine debate about issues of global importance, Miami will satisfy, with the added bonus that the debaters in question are four of the most interesting men the world has seen. As if substantive, personable drama and ultra-charming dialogue were not enough, the film’s conclusion is a soaring coda that wraps affairs up with a powerful finish for each man (though certain details are chronologically inaccurate, but who’s counting).

Every element outpaces high expectations. King demonstrates considerable talent and a keen approach, acting as a compassionate and loving shepherd for these powerful people and ideas to flourish and interact without interference or pretension.

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