What if Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, NFL superstar Jim Brown, and King of Soul Sam Cooke all met together for one night in Miami after Clay’s historic boxing win on February 25, 1964? What would they share, what would they hold back on? What would rile them and cause conflict? Regina King puts the scenario to you in her accomplished directorial debut, One Night in Miami.
One Night in Miami
Director: Regina King
Release date: October 10, 2020 (LFF)
A powerful ensemble performance from Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X), Eli Goree (Cassius Clay), Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown) and Leslie Odom Jr (Sam Cooke) catches the figures each facing a personal crossroads on a fictional, historic night. Cassius Clay has just won the world heavyweight championship by defeating Sonny Liston. At only 22, he has the world ahead of him, and he’s on the verge of making his conversion to Islam public. Clay (soon to become Muhammad Ali) is the star of the show in many ways, and he’s intoxicated on his success, but he’s buoyed by the powerful men around him.
Although it may feel fictional, the fact is that these figures did indeed know each other. It might not have been well-publicised, but it’s the subject of Kemp Powers’ 2013 stage play. Regina King carefully extracts these characters and examines them in detail, but she’s not afraid to show her creative flair. Her spectacular performance in Watchmen has already more than demonstrated her command of the screen, so it follows that this talent should extend to directing.
The film’s theatrical origins are quite evident and the quick repartee, confined setting of a hotel room, and balance of dialogue between the main four characters can seem measured, though not to the point of feeling formulaic. Over the course of its 110-minute runtime, the film explores these philosophical avenues and the idea of blackness as an identity, a movement and a force.
The zealous Malcolm X speaks fervently of his passion for the movement, while performer Sam Cooke is chastised for his alleged pandering to white people through his music. Jim Brown and Clay consider the future of their careers: Clay at the height of success; Brown considers the problems with the NFL and a career shift to the movies. It seems that, in a movement that should unite brothers, it also throws into relief their differences.
Despite the film’s weighty themes, its characters are playful and the momentum doesn’t waver. I’d encourage viewers to do a bit of homework before going in and making blind judgements about the film’s historical accuracy. Still, it makes a compelling case. There’s criticism of Malcolm X’s alleged interference with Cassius Clay’s religious leanings which emerge at a press conference — it’s an issue worth thinking about, especially given the 22-year-old’s impressionable state and the state of the nation as a whole. But King does give this idealised version of Clay time to talk through his decisions, making us think about what might have been going through his head.
We also see another side to Malcolm X from the ‘fire and brimstone’ preacher, as he’s so often labelled. He’s devoted to his young family and, though he can’t always be there with them, he calls often and tries to keep the growing paranoia out of view. His wife is understandably worried about his safety, and during the course of the film, he has bodyguards follow him in the event that he should be followed. While we never get a full sense of the danger he alludes to, it’s ironic that less than a year later, in 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated.
There is a marked and refreshing move away from the films that seem to placate racist sentiment; instead, One Night in Miami exposes the issues for what they are. The mention of a green book telling black people where they can and can’t stay while traveling is thankfully handled with more care and diligence than the infamous 2017 film. A dry laugh is afforded to allusions such as a motel for black celebrities named The Hamptons: clearly, it’s a world away from Long Island’s Haute Couture playground for the rich and famous.
There’s even a conversation about the hierarchy between Black people, of so-called ‘light-skinned and ‘dark-skinned’ people who segregate from each other based on appearances. This sad reality makes it clear that this is a film that’s come from a lived experience of the black identity and not some imagined version, fabricated for the cameras.
While One Night in Miami’s title might indicate a feature given over to sensationalism and all the usual cliches of Miami we’re used to, the fact is that the film is much more sober in its tone and judgement. Anchored by the presence of activists, it tempers the bubbling enthusiasm of its younger members with questions about the civil rights struggle and an individual’s place within it.
Although many superb productions have been put on hold this year, it’s encouraging that some of the most important narratives, including those handling issues of civil rights, have been exhibited during this year’s Black History Month. King’s film has debuted at Venice and TIFF this year and there’s no doubt it will become a hit when it lands for general release in the US on Christmas Day.