Regina King makes her directorial debut with this screen adaptation of the Kemp Powers stage play (which he is also credited for the screenplay of), One Night in Miami (2020). The story is endlessly compelling, as it puts the audience in the room where it happened…Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) join Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) in Miami before and after his fight with Sonny Liston (Aaron D. Alexander) on February 25, 1964. The four spend much of their time together discussing their various roles in the Civil Rights movement.
As one might expect from a play adaptation, this movie is dialogue heavy. However, the dialogue is so expertly crafted and the casting is so perfect that every word spoken has power. Those words may bring a smile to your face, a punch to the gut, or a tear to your eye. Whether it be the dialogue delivered from Odom’s Cooke – with a delightfully musical tinge – or the overly charismatic Clay that Goree managed to channel the iconic cadence for this role, there is no way one could find themselves bored. Unless you don’t think the essence of the conversation is worthwhile, of course.
At center stage is a heated debate about the roles each man is playing in the ongoing civil rights movement of the time. It’s a powerful series of conversations, led mostly by Malcolm X, that I went in skeptical of, concerned with whether or not Ben-Adir could live up to the performance I recently revisited by Denzel Washington…but he does. Ben-Adir brings so much to this role, and the emotion and quiet fear he exudes in his performance is outstanding. Hodge continues to impress this time as legendary NFL star Jim Brown. These four men in the same room discussing such important things with an air of just four dudes hanging out at the lamest after party in history is just endlessly compelling to watch.
The other obstacle that this movie faced was a directorial debut from an actor going behind the camera. Would King know how to visualize a stage play and make it feel like a film? Not only does she succeed in turning this into a movie – she demonstrates a strong visual style, and finds innovative ways to build tension and show emotion with her camera movements. The sequence that stood out the most to me was after a heated moment – when one character storms out of the hotel room, she keeps the camera locked on Malcolm X. The camera pulls backwards as he walks into the room towards the camera. It moves ever so slightly to allow Cassius Clay to enter the frame to confront Malcolm about what just transpired. This long take is used intentionally – and not at all in a showy way – and it has a strong emotional impact on the viewer, as we are allowed to see Malcolm processing so much emotion. King demonstrates this mastery of the form throughout the film, and gives the audience one hell of a debut.
As soon as you are able to see One Night in Miami (2020), you definitely should. I wasn’t very familiar with this story until I started watching, and I got quite excited when I discovered just what I was in store for. Then, to see how well everyone involved executed this material, I became even more excited. In a year full of cinematic disappointments and withholdings, getting to see this towards the end of 2020 was a great opportunity. One Night in Miami earns the Must See rating. The film will be available on Amazon Prime on January 15th.