One Night in Miami
Kemp Powers (Based on his own play)
Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Christian Magby, Joaquina Kalukango, Nicolette Robinson, Michael Imperioli
A momentous meeting of four celebrated Black Americans turns into an exploration of bigotry and racism in America with an underlying ideological discussion on how to best position those who have been oppressed for well over a century to emerge from the dark ages of their subjugation and stand tall in the world around them. That One Night in Miami feels as pointed and germane today as it did in the 1960s America in which the film is set speaks to how little progress we’ve made since the Civil Rights Movement supposedly wound down six decades ago.
Recently, I took Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to task for not opening the material up more, leaving it feeling confined and stage-bound. Now, we have an example of what we want in an opened-up stage-to-screen adaptation. Regina King’s tremendous big screen directorial debut takes Kemp Powers’ potent stage play and turns it into a resounding success, opening the play up to places beyond the stuffy hotel room in which it’s set. These aren’t perfunctory diversions like in Ma Rainey’s, the characters, both individually and in tandem, venture out beyond the hotel not just in numerous flashback and flashforward sequences, but in shifting venues from Cassius Clay’s ringside event to the hotel to the rooftop and then splitting characters off in various combinations. Not only do we get a foundation for the world in which these characters now live, but we are filled in on their desperation, frustration, and hope for the future, which are each amplified by these moments.
The production is about a fictionalized meeting of four Black titans as they discuss their successes, dreams, and goals for the future with each tackling their mediums differently. At this meeting of minds are Civil Rights leader Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), heavyweight champion Clay (Eli Goree), singer and music industry giant Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and NFL titan Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). As the four figures discuss their past, present, and potential futures, the four often butt heads questioning each other on the best way to bring equal rights to all Black Americans. While Ben-Adir and Goree are classed as leads, Odom Jr.’s character and performance seem better suited to lead classification while Goree’s Clay is often a less prominent figure. Regardless of positioning, all four actors deliver superb performances with Odom Jr. commanding the screen in each moment, especially in his final vocal performance at the film’s end.
King’s familiarity with actors had a terrific impact on the flow of the film, which each man given a chance to shine. This is the reason actors can make wonderful directors, simply because they know how to elicit strong work from their peers while their extensive experience in front of the camera leeches off other directors for inspiration. The film struggles in a few spots to maintain its carefully orchestrated pacing and ultimately searches for its point in the post-establishing scenes. Yet, when the whole is brought together by film’s end, the little decisions feel necessary to bring the audience to this conclusion even if it’s an occasionally bumpy run up to that point.
In the end, the question is not how do we act in a post-racial society, but how do we get to that point? One Night in Miami posits that there is no singular way Black Americans can move forward and assert their rights and freedoms as equal parts of American society. There are a myriad, but the film suggests that not only is it incumbent upon them to do something, but it’s imperative that White Americans both recognize and uplift those who are treated as second-class citizens in a nation where the majority believes that they are already free and equal even if they aren’t.
Guarantees: Supporting Actor (Leslie Odom Jr.)
Probables: Picture, Actor (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Adapted Screenplay, Original Song (“Speak Now”)
Potentials: Directing, Original Score, Film Editing, Production Design
Unlikelies: Actor (Eli Goree), Supporting Actor (Aldis Hodge), Cinematography, Costume Design, Sound
January 25, 2021