Four icons of African American history meet in a Miami hotel in Regina King’s promising directorial debut.
Imagine if four of your childhood heroes spent an evening together. What would happen? What would they talk about? After stumbling across an extraordinary real-life example of this situation in a history book, these questions consumed writer Kemp Powers; One Night in Miami is his answer.
Adapted from Powers’ award-winning play of the same name, Regina King’s directorial debut is the fictionalised retelling of a momentous meeting between four icons of African-American history, which took place on 25 February, 1964. Following 22-year-old boxer Cassius Clay’s (Eli Goree) unexpected victory against heavyweight champion Sonny Liston (Aaron D Alexander), he celebrates in a Miami hotel, with the help of Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), soul legend Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr) and NFL fullback Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge).
Though the film provides only a snapshot of these men’s lives, we catch them at a pivotal moment. We see X preparing to leave the Nation of Islam, whilst Clay (soon to be known as Muhammad Ali) is on the precipice of publicly joining the movement. Cooke reflects upon his role and responsibilities as a Black artist, and Brown considers the possibility of a career in film and the freedom that it could bring him.
King’s 35 years of acting experience help her draw out impressively nuanced performances from the cast. The pitfalls of playing such well-known personalities are artfully avoided, and whilst these men are instantly recognisable, they manage not to stray into the territory of impressions or caricatures. In particular, Odom Jr perfectly captures Cooke’s easy charm, and during a flashback we see him sing a scaled-back version of Chain Gang in a rendition fitting of the man known as the ‘King of Soul’.
But these strong performances alone are not enough to sustain the audience – the film lacks clear narrative structure and buckles under the weight of its powerful protagonists. Important discussions that occur throughout the film get lost, with their impact minimised due to the film’s lethargic pace.
Over 15 minutes is spent giving clunky introductions to these prominent men, and One Night in Miami takes a while to get into the thick of it, never quite finding a solid rhythm. As is often the problem with films adapted from theatre productions, it still has a stagey feel, and the confinement of most of the action to a dingy hotel room does nothing to help maintain the audience’s interest.
This is a huge shame when so many of the issues it raises are just as relevant now as they were in 1964. When it’s suggested that, as a light-skinned man, X’s militancy could in part be an attempt to prove himself to other Black people, he shuts down this idea – “we are all Black people” – using an argument perpetuated to this day to derail conversations about colourism. Meanwhile, Brown’s criticism of white liberals who “just cannot wait to pat themselves on the back for not being cruel to us” feels as pertinent as ever in today’s world of black square activism and self-proclaimed allyship.
One Night in Miami is undoubtedly timely and the men whose lives it depicts are clearly compelling. But this is not enough to carry the film, and it ultimately fails to pack a punch.
Published 13 Oct 2020
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