DIRECTED BY: Regina King
STARRING: Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Nicolette Robinson, Christian Magby, Joaquina Kalukango, Jerome A. Wilson, Amondre D. Jackson, Aaron D. Alexander, Michael Imperioli, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Jeremy Pope, Christopher Gorham and Beau Bridges
Set on the night of the 25th February 1964, following a young Cassius Clay, before he became Muhammad Ali, as he emerges from the Miami Beach Convention Center the new World Heavyweight Boxing Champion. Against all odds, he defeated Sonny Liston and shocked the sports world. While the crowds of people swarm Miami Beach to celebrate the match, Clay – unable to stay on the island because of Jim Crow-era segregation laws – instead spends the night at the Hampton House Motel in one of Miami’s historically black neighbourhoods celebrating with three of his closest friends: activist Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke and football star Jim Brown. The next morning, the four men emerge determined to define a new world for themselves and their people.
Based on the 2013 stage play of the same name by Kemp Powers, who also adapts the screenplay, One Night In Miami marks the directorial feature debut of Academy Award-winning actress Regina King. Based on a true story, the film (and the play) gives a fictional account of newly crowned world heavyweight champion Cassius Clay celebrates his victory in a motel room with Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X, singer-songwriter and record producer Sam Cooke, and NFL star Jim Brown. But as the night initially starts as a celebration amongst these close friends, as the night goes on it becomes a heated discussion on race, civil rights and the legacy they are hoping to achieve.
The film has an interesting concept, giving audiences a glimpse into what could’ve taken place between four significant African-American figures during the mid-60’s, and with Kemp Powers screenplay and Regina King’s direction, the conversations between the four men become compelling viewing, as each men enter the gathering that night carrying their own internal crisis with them. Even though he’s just become the boxing world heavyweight champion, Cassius’s mind is weighing heavy thinking about making an announcement about joining the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X is struggling with his role within the Nation after recent revelations and conflicts with Elijah Muhammad come to light, Sam Cooke is trying to break into white spaces such as the Copacabana in an attempt to break barriers for other black artists going forward, and Jim Brown is contemplating moving away from being an American footballer and becoming an actor. It’s when the four men come together in that room that the film truly shines as King allows the actors and material to breathe with her precise direction, which sometimes someone making their directorial feature debut wouldn’t do. What once starts as a celebration, the night soon turns into a tense philosophical debate, particularly between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke as the two take verbal jabs at each other with the former believing that Cooke isn’t doing enough for the cause and even mocks him for the fact that his music is catering to his white fans, while the latter counters with the fact that he’s using his success to open doors for other black artists as well as explaining the benefits of being the owner to the masters of all his records. While he would be known after this night as Muhammad Ali rather than Cassius Clay, I thought Eli Goree gave a really good performance as Cassius Clay, bringing vulnerability and depth here of the man struggling with his conscious over whether he wants to convert to Islam or not and expressing his fears amongst his friends in a manner that makes Goree’s performance as Clay/Ali stand above becoming a cheap impersonation of such a iconic figure. I thought Leslie Odom Jr. gave a great performance as Sam Cooke, he not only nails the vocal performance as Sam, but he embodies the performer. Kingsley Ben-Adir is also great with his nuance performance as Malcolm X bringing a level of anxiety and humanity to the role that makes it just different enough to make it comparable with Denzel Washington’s portrayal in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. Though he might not have the same amount of scenes as the rest of the leads to chew the scenery up, I thoroughly enjoyed Aldis Hodge’s performance as Jim Brown, at times the calm figure in the group that can express more with a simple look than words.
The film does take its time to get to the actual gathering in the motel room on the night in question, as the films first fifteen-twenty minutes gives the audience exposition to where each character is at in that moment of their lives several months prior, such as Cassius Clay fighting Cooper at Wembley in London for example. While King lets the actors work within the confides of the motel room for the majority of the film, with some of the lines of dialogue from Kemp’s script, some people may find it all too stagey to their liking.
One Night In Miami is a very impressive directorial feature debut from Regina King, shooting it in a way that allows the chemistry and the performances from Goree, Ben-Adir, Odom Jr. and Hodge to shine with the material they’re working with.