Directed by: Regina King
Premise: Based on the stage play by Kemp Powers. Set in 1964, Muhammad Ali gathers at a Miami motel with civil rights leader Malcolm X, football player and actor Jim Brown, and musician Sam Cooke. They debate their responsibilities as prominent men of color.
What Works: One Night in Miami brings a stage play to the screen and it is an impressive adaptation. Stage plays primarily deliver their information through dialogue whereas cinema is primarily about movement and the juxtaposition of sound and images; stage plays adapted to the screen sometimes suffer from coming across too static. The filmmakers of One Night in Miami have turned this play into a kinetic viewing experience which is quite something given that the bulk of the movie takes place inside of a small motel room. This story is like a relay with different characters taking the narrative baton for a while before passing it off to someone else. The camera conveys this masterfully, weaving in between the characters and reframing the action to focus on whichever character or pair of characters has the spotlight at that moment. One Night in Miami is a period piece and the costumes and sets look authentically of their time; the movie has the organic appearance of a space in which people lived and worked. The vibrancy of One Night in Miami is partly due to its production design but also its casting. The actors are matched perfectly with their roles especially Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X and Eli Goree as Muhammad Ali; Ben-Adir and Goree have an uncanny resemblance to their real life counterparts. Aldis Hodge and Leslie Odom Jr. also impress as Jim Brown and Sam Cooke, respectively. These men play historical figures but they come across as real people with flaws and doubts and whose destiny was not preordained. That gives the political substance of One Night in Miami added potency. The men’s discussion about their roles and responsibilities to society crackles with passion and urgency because it feels human and in-the-moment. Instead of icons, these figures come across as men struggling to find their way.
What Doesn’t: It should be said that One Night in Miami is speculative fiction. We do know that these four men gathered together in Miami the night Muhammad Ali won the heavyweight title and the next day he announced his conversion to Islam. Everything beyond that is creative conjecture which is fine. Adaptations of real life require it. But audiences should not take One Night in Miami as a definitive history of what actually happened because we don’t know.
DVD extras: Currently available on Amazon.
Bottom Line: One Night in Miami is an outstanding feature film. The movie simultaneously gets into the intimate lives of its characters while addressing broad issues of race and social responsibility. This is a skillfully made and terrifically acted picture and an impressive feature film directorial debut by Regina King.
Episode: #837 (January 31, 2021)