Regina King‘s directorial debut is a curious choice for a first film. An adaptation of Kemp Powers‘ one act play, set entirely in a motel room, in the immediate aftermath of Cassius Clay‘s historic victory over Sonny Liston in 1964. This is a unique, fictional account of the real-life meeting between Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown, who all hung out in X’s room after the fight.
Where One Night In Miami succeeds is in the casting of the four leads, who fully embody their characters, and have a natural chemistry. Eli Goree gets the physicality and cockiness of the soon-to-be Muhammad Ali perfectly, making him impulsive and infinitely charismatic. Kingsley Ben-Adir gives an admirably balanced portrayal of Malcolm X, balancing his stern devotion to Islam and the civil rights movement with a few moments of giddy excitement (like when he’s watching the boxing match) that make him a lot more human than the rigid, unsmiling depictions we usually get. Ben-Adir’s performance is full of pathos, of wanting to be part of the group but also keeping his distance. Above everything else he comes across as painfully earnest; unable to loosen up in the same way as the others.
Jim Brown is the character I knew least about (I imagine he’s much more ubiquitous in the US as an American football star, but I knew him from his appearances in The Dirty Dozen and Mars Attacks) but Aldis Hodge makes him stoic and reserved throughout. Surprisingly he’s the only character we see encounter overt racism in day-to-day life, in a scene with an old acquaintance Beau Bridges that features one of the most shocking instances of racism I’ve seen on film for a while. However, it’s Leslie Odom Jr. who makes the biggest impression as Sam Cooke. His rich, smooth voice makes him a natural fit for the singer, and he really channels him when performing the lovingly recreated songs.
In the film’s best scene, Malcolm X describes seeing Cooke perform in a Boston club, where the microphones cut out. In an act of desperation he sings Chain Gang acapella, encouraging the audience to provide the backing vocals. It feels cinematic in a way the rest of the film never quite manages – the way King pulls back from Odom’s singing to X’s point of view with the sound slowly draining out makes this the most moving, evocative moment of the film, turning the performance into an almost religious experience.
Powers’ script is compelling and authentic but plays fast and loose with the facts – most controversially it suggests that Sam Cooke was only compelled to write the soulful, civil rights classic A Change Is Gonna Come after this meeting with Malcolm X, which is patently false. It’s implied by X that Cooke is wasting his talents writing light, catchy songs when he should be using his platform to highlight the struggles of African Americans, which is actually something Cooke wrote about throughout his career (This is explored further in this excellent article from Slate).
The confines of the motel room mean that the characters are always in each others faces, and despite some creative camerawork from King, it’s unavoidably stagey in places. One Night In Miami works best as a character piece, and King is clearly an actor’s director, drawing nuanced, grounded portrayals from her four leads, all of whom clearly know their characters inside out. Overall, it’s an interesting film with a powerful, potent message, but often feels like a filmed version of the play, and not a film in its own right.
One very positive benefit of getting a Criterion release so soon after release is the impressive extra features. Not only is Regina King all over this Blu-ray release, in numerous interviews and documentaries, but so are the cast and all the creative minds behind the film (The cinematographer, costume designer, Editor and more). The extras include newly recorded conversations between King and filmmakers Barry Jenkins and Kasi Lemmons, and numerous screenwriters and critics. PLUS: An essay by critic Gene Seymour