On paper, One Night in Miami sounds like one of those films that you would conjure up in a dizzying daydream, the cinematic equivalent of asking what it would be like to be a fly on the wall in any room in history.
The film, written by Kemp Powers based off his own play of the same name, sees Sam Cooke, Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, and Jim Brown meeting in a hotel room off the back of Clay’s historic victory against Sonny Liston which garnered him the title of heavyweight champion of the world. Four universally known figures all in the same room. One Night in Miami takes a conjectural glimpse into what might have happened in that room, based on events prior and following that night.
It’s clear from the start that One Night in Miami has been lifted from the stage. The way the dialogue flows evokes a linguistic implication that it’s taking centre stage, dominating in the way that only a stage-play can do. The minimal locations, the way the events unfold could only have been taken from a stage production. Though that’s not to the film’s detriment at all as the real meat of the movie lies in the content, and the way that is presented on screen.
Regina King is an extremely talented, multi-faceted woman, and her directorial debut is excessive proof of that. Not too long after her deserved Oscar win for her performance in If Beale Street Could Talk, King has helmed her directorial feature debut. She had previously worked on several episodes of television such as Scandal (where Kerry Washington hailed her as “the best director” in a roundtable discussion) and This Is Us, where she shows even more potential behind the camera. It’s not uncommon for directorial debuts to be smaller in scale but heftier in depth and complexity as it allows the director to find their style and create something without the added burdens of spectacle and flair. King manages to squeeze every last drop out of this content and carves out her own space in the pantheon of actors-turned-directors. Her work is evidence that she’ll only continue to do exceptional work and mark herself as a director in her own right.
Manoeuvring along the confined spaces of the Miami motel room, King lets her camera find the best way to block the scenes, letting the actors dig into their material, and creates some absolutely magical moments. Despite all of her great work, its the actors who really get to shine and bite into the characters they’re portraying. All four of them manage to do some exemplary work and make three-dimensional people, separate from the weight of their individual celebrity. I want to talk about each of them, as they all bring something unique to the table which makes this movie soar.
I’ll start with Aldis Hodge, who perhaps has the least “flashiest” role of the four, but gives a stellar performance as NFL legend Jim Brown. Hodge has the difficult task of delivering presence in every moment, even when he’s not on screen. There’s a moment where the focus is on Malcolm but Jim is in the background, out of focus, arms folded and standing tall, and you feel everything. Hodge’s silences alone carry more weight than what a lot of actors could have brought with dialogue. His moments in the bathroom really sell that idea, where presence and internalisation combine to create something pretty great. And his reactionary work in the conversation with Beau Bridges? Excellent. Hodge nails his key moments and is very aware of the scale at which his character should be at. He’s not playing a caricature, he’s emanating an evocation of what Jim Brown might have been like in that room. And that really, really works.
Let’s talk about Eli Goree for just a second. Having only really seen Goree in his roles in The CW’s The 100 and Riverdale, his performance is probably the biggest surprise of the year for me. You can always feel Clay’s energy, the type of energy that only an exceptional athlete carries around with them, the urge to always be moving, the need to constantly push and improve. It’s on the surface a bouncy performance, but Goree also beautifully captures moments of stillness that don’t feel jarring, they really work towards the narrative that’s being built up. Clay’s cocky persona bleeds into the hotel room, but there’s enough depth there behind Goree’s eyes that the persona remains just that and doesn’t try to dominate the entire performance. When you’re playing a character like that, someone so well-known and documented with an intimidating idiosyncrasy to embody, there becomes a fine line between performance and imitation. Goree walks this line beautifully and gives his all to this role. For what I would consider his first major film role, he has shown up exactly what he is capable of and, as much as I love it, he is wasted on Riverdale.
As I think the entire world knows by now, especially since the meteoric rise of Hamilton, Leslie Odom Jr. can really sing. He takes on a lot of Hamilton‘s most vocally demanding moments and excels at each of them. Though I think what people often forget about musical theatre performers is that they’re actors too. Odom Jr. proves here that is truly an actor of distinction as his performance as Sam Cooke is so good that I’ll probably think of it every time I look at him (and no longer his iconic performance as Aaron Burr). Odom Jr. imbues Cooke with a lot of opposing traits. He’s collected yet fiery, aware of his musical talent but also peculiarly humble. He sells each of his musical moments in the film with aplomb, but I was most impressed by the deeper, more complex moments, particularly during his tete-a-tete of sorts with Malcolm X as they start to clash in their ideology and experience as the night grows darker. Odom Jr. is sensational here as he brings Cooke to life in every moment and seems to really feel his pain when Malcolm delivers some scathing commentary about the way his life looks to be going. I won’t go into too much depth, but the aftermath of the Bob Dylan moment? Exceptional. Odom Jr. easily gives one of my favourite performances of the year.
I left Kingsley Ben-Adir’s performance as Malcolm X until last because I’m truly still blown away by it and not fully sure how to discuss it. As with other recognisable figures, comparisons will be made to other depictions, specifically that of Denzel Washington’s iconic portrayal. I don’t know whether it’s fortunate or unfortunate for this review, but I haven’t yet seen Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, so I will not be drawing any comparisons here, just lauding Ben-Adir with all of the greatly deserved praise he should be getting from every angle. It’s a stunning performance, capturing facets to a character that are equally surprising and haunting. You can see the harrowing past written on his face, his experiences in 1960’s America so clearly etched in his expressions. Malcolm’s a little more withdrawn and diplomatic than the rest of them…until something stokes the fire of his passion and gets him going. He delivers some well-written dialogue in Cooke’s direction and it suddenly becomes a different performance, as though Malcolm has snapped. Yet Ben-Adir controls every single second of his time on screen and he’s never anything less than superb.
The performances may have been my favourite part of the movie, but that doesn’t undercut how good everything else is, particularly the script which is interesting in its adaptation. Powers’ has such a handle on how to present the dialogue for the screen, and I’m not sure this movie would have worked as well without that adaptational confidence that Powers possesses. His script and King’s controlled direction work in tandem to provide an insightful look into what might have gone down behind that motel room door on February 25th 1964.
I loved this movie a great deal. It provided everything I love about cinema: great performances, a director who clearly cares about her material, a powerful script, and a beautiful, haunting ending note that really strikes a chord and serves to contextualise the previous two hours of cinema. It’s a final scene that lets the questions raised float in the air and allows a contemporary audience to ask themselves some vital questions regarding race in the modern age. One Night in Miami is stirring, morally complex, and as insightful as you might expect it to be.
One of my favourites of the year so far.