BFI LFF 2020: One Night in Miami (2020)

One Night in Miami, directed by Regina King, is a fictionalised account of an extraordinary meeting that really took place in 1964 between black icons the-then Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke.

Winds of Change

by Chris Drew

One Night in Miami

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

In her directorial debut, Oscar-winner Regina King and screenwriter Kemp Powers, adapting his own 2013 play, take us back to February 1964 and imagine what happened at a real encounter between newly crowned heavyweight champion Cassius Clay (Eli Goree, Riverdale), only 22, political activist and Muslim minister Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir, Peaky Blinders), football star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge, Hidden Figures) and silky-voiced soul legend and entrepreneur Sam Cooke (Leslie Odum Jr, Hamilton).

Following Clay’s surprise victory over Sonny Liston that evening, Malcolm X hosts the group to celebrate in his motel room. He has a sober plan for an evening of reflection and discussion, debating their varying positions and perspectives on civil rights, albeit with vanilla (which they joke about) ice cream conflicting with the party expected by the others.

Much of the drama comes from Clay’s not-yet-announced conversion to Islam, to become Muhammad Ali, and Malcolm X’s own planned religious move from the Nation of Islam, which he had encouraged Clay to join, while X clashes with Cooke for not using his musical platform to progress the movement, surprisingly pulling out an LP and playing him Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind as a demonstration of what Cooke could do for Black Power by writing more relevant protest music. Brown is a quietly pragmatic sounding board.

Establishing the characters before the action moves to the central setting, Clay’s fights are well staged and Brown’s introductory scene meeting NFL boss, Southerner Mr Carlton (Beau Bridges, The Fabulous Baker Boys) ends with a dramatic racist shock.

Later in the night a superb flashback sequence sees Malcolm X telling of the time he saw Cooke performing in concert in Boston brilliantly turning round a hostile crowd after warm-up act Jackie Wilson (Jeremy Pope, Hollywood) turns off the power on stage. This neatly reverses an early scene where Cooke performs in front of a disapproving white crowd at the Copacabana.

King’s creative collaborators have all done sterling work with the 1960s costumes, hair and make-up, set direction and production design all superb.

As with many theatrical adaptations One Night in Miami cannot hide its stage roots; being dialogue-heavy and seeing the four characters largely contained in the same one room setting although the play is convincingly opened up by the opening sequences and breakout scenes. As a result much of the film’s success hinges on the performances and chemistry of the central quartet and all four actors deliver.

Goree captures the physicality, confidence and charisma of Clay while British actor Ben-Adir brings gravitas and does some excellent accent work as Malcolm X. As Cooke, Tony-winner Odum Jr gets to put his vocal talents to good use and Hodge is brooding and commanding as the football star and burgeoning actor Brown.

It is perhaps surprising that King’s first feature film in the director’s chair is one with so few female roles of note. Joaquina Kalukango (When They See Us) has the most impact as Malcolm X’s concerned wife Betty Shabazz while Odum Junior’s real-life wife Nicolette Robinson (The Affair) is affecting in her single scene as Cooke’s wife Barbara.

One Night in Miami is of course a timely film with the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 and may also drive viewers to research the 1960s inhabited by these four civil rights figures.

One Night in Miami screens in the 2020 BFI London Film Festival and will be released in January 2021 in the UK.

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