If we tried to award all of the actors with a long career that has yet to culminate in a publicly recognized success because it’s been a long time coming, it would be a long time coming. Unfortunately, this sort of conversation tends to surround those who have been nominated numerous of times without success (the Academy Award being the pinnacle of that sort) — all of which seems to be more inflammatory than a rattle call for artistic justice. But for those who have been quiet in the background, even through leading roles or as household names, it feels powerfully justified when the sum of their projects and choices have created something, with a word that may be frequently used to describe One Night in Miami, magical. Regina King, whose career extends from indulging the voices of the Freeman boys to recently and iconically portraying Sister Night in HBO’s chopped-n-screwed remake of Watchmen, is that example. Sure, she did win an Oscar almost two years ago, but One Night in Miami, her first film as a film director, is not only a triumphant result from experience, but a monumental archway to another leg of her odyssey.
This historical-fictional account, adapted from Kemp Powers’ 2013 stage play, instantly disarms with a diamond-in-the-rough charm and faith from the four main characters, each nearing their own personal transformations: pre-Muslim boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), who fires punchlines as quickly as his jabs; a worn Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), overexposed by the public; soon-retiring quarterback Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge); and newly-solo crooner Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.). They convene one February night in 1964 when Clay, in a surprise win, reigns as the new heavyweight champion of the world. To celebrate, Malcolm rents a motel room at the Hampton. To the dismay of Cooke and Brown, who were expecting a night of debauchery and a high — nay, even existing — female to male ratio, Malcolm wants to have a deep conversation about Clay’s public conversion to Islam. Due to religious reasons, no alcohol will be partaken here, but there’s ice cream in the fridge.
One Night in Miami is a product of Powers’ imagination, fueled by extensive research; according to one Muhammad Ali biography, the four had been together on one night, but their conversations may have gone a number of different ways. On that accord, the film toys with context that definitely happened to the characters (spectacularly placed as Easter eggs in the dialogue for the history buffs who can catch it), and lines that may not be stated in their biographies, yet which decline to compromise either character or actual figure. In this envisioned night in Miami, Powers lets the running gag of a bachelor’s party headed by two groomsmen with vastly different ideas of fun become the welcome mat, but spikes the punch with the sordid reality of Black men that deal with racism in heightened proportions with fame.
The film’s transition from stage to screen prevails in the same rhythm and spatial awareness, similarly to Joe Mantello’s take of The Boys in the Band (released last September on Netflix). However, while swift daggers are thrown in so many directions that it’s hard to fathom that The Boys are even friends, the kinships in One Night feel authentic and supportive, even through fictionalized tension. In one instance, Malcolm and Cooke have a heated debate about their usages of fame to support the civil rights movement, an argument that can be pertinent to celebrities who haven’t posted about BLM on Instagram. With a second slap to the face, Malcolm plays Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” on the record player and exclaims that even white artists have done more than Cooke has. While this tidbit causes Cooke to change the course of his pop-bop songwriting (though not incited by Malcolm or on the night of Clay’s victory in real life), there is something double-sided, even triple-sided, about the differential in luxury that white voices have. Later in the night, Malcolm describes seeing Cooke perform for the first time, and the dreamy respect, buried under strained contraries, is unmistakable.
In short, One Night in Miami cleverly captures the auras of historical figures, placed neatly with a pace that will make two hours pass by because you’re having fun, even if the characters aren’t. Regina King will most certainly continue on with what she’s been doing for the past thirty years — whether in acting or directing, with or without our approval. But in her power, she shines on these four burgeoning actors to excel. Ben-Adir and Odom Jr. bring powerhouse performances, and I particularly found Goree’s ease into self-assured comedy to help the script rise above heavy-handed topics. This is the power one can bequest to another: a platform to elevate.
One Night in Miami
dir. Regina King
Now streaming on Amazon Prime!
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