One Night in Miami – Review

One Night in Miami Regina King makes her directorial debut with her stage-to-screen adaptation of Kemp Powers’ One Night in Miami. It’s a fictionalised account of true events, which centres around the meeting of four of the most iconic names in [African] American history.

It’s February 1964. Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) is fresh from knocking Sonny Liston on his ass to claim a championship title. His friend, Malcom X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) suggests that they celebrate with some ice cream in a Miami motel room, alongside NFL legend Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and soul singer, Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr).

It sounds like plucking names out of a hat for a fantasy dinner party. But if you’re expecting Clay to only speak in witty rhymes or Cooke to constantly break into song, this is the wrong movie for you.

King – using Powers’ screenplay – uses the claustrophobic motel room to her advantage, creating a setting that is both tense and triumphant; joyous and vulnerable. She reaches deep into the heart of the issues that were plaguing the Civil Rights movement at the time and uses each of the cultural giants to vocalise many of the thoughts and conflicts that were occurring.

Martin Luther King is dead; there are splits and tensions within the Nation of Islam; and, despite all of their successes, both Cooke and Brown are still not accepted by mainstream white audiences. All of this bubbles under the surface for the first third of the movie, with each of the quartet attempting to push through barriers in their own way.

Like most films that centre around one location, it hinges on the central performances – and not a single one falls short, here. Eli Goree plays Clay as young and wild-eyed, with only a hint of the assuredness and smack talk that became the hallmark of his career. He’s on the verge of becoming a Muslim but wonders what that might mean for his beer and pork chop consumption.

Leslie Odom, Jr is excellent as Cooke. You can see the passion oozing out of him when he talks about giving other black artists a leg up in the industry; the pride he has in owning his own label and his own songs. Aldis Hodge is laid back with a quiet menace about him. He’s keen to leave the NFL behind for Hollywood and – like Cooke – believes financial emancipation is the only way to achieve true equality.

For me, Kingsley Ben-Adir is the stand out as Malcolm X. You can almost see the internal turmoil that he is going through. Breaking away from the Nation of Islam; paranoid about constant surveillance; feeling like he has the fate of the entire African American population on his shoulders. There are so many layers to his person as his struggles both with the Civil Rights movement and his own self. He is weary, but knows that he is a figurehead who must push on.

But, for all this is a movie about a pivotal moment in Civil Rights history, it’s not without laughs. There are jokes about ice cream and pork chops and the lack of party atmosphere. There are also some really beautiful performances from Odom, Jr as he takes on well-known Cooke numbers such as You Send Me and Chain Gang, leading up to a tearful, powerful rendition of that secular hymn, A Change is Gonna Come.

As a character study, fans of any of the icons featured in this film will no doubt enjoy learning a little more about them. As a history lesson, One Night in Miami is far more absorbing than anything you ever read in a high school textbook. It strips away all of the rhetoric and shows four men, trying to do what they believe is best, as they strive for equality across a number of different platforms.

This is an impressive debut from Regina King – she has really drawn fantastic performances out of her actors and doesn’t allow the use of one location to make things feel too “stagey”.

And, given recent events in Washington, it does make you wonder just how much of that “change” that Cooke sang about has actually happened.

One Night in Miami is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Mary Munoz
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