Regina King’s feature directorial debut is brimming with confidence, in its staging, in its script and above all else, in its powerful performances.
The four iconic figures of unmatched charisma central to this stage play adaptation – Sam Cooke, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown and Malcolm X – are brought to life with the verve and magnetism that their real-life counterparts demand. The daunting task of filling the shoes of these historic men – a musician of unrivalled talent, the greatest boxer of all time, a record-shattering American football player, and a revered human rights activist – falls to Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge and Kingsley Ben-Adir respectively.
It’s after a young Cassius Clay’s (later to become known as Muhammad Ali) shock 1964 title-winning victory over Sonny Liston that the four men gather in Malcolm X’s motel room. But it’s not celebration that Malcolm X has in mind for the evening, with the night soon turning towards more serious discussions of civil rights, religion, race, and their own roles as public figures in the fight for the rights of Black people. It’s a meeting of minds chock full of passion, rage, paranoia and foreshadowing of tragic events yet to come. In turn, each actor is given their moment in the spotlight, and each takes the baton and runs with it, breathing life, energy and heart into their performances. And while Eli Goree, in particular, is endlessly entertaining as Cassius Clay, it’s Leslie Odom Jr.’s soulful portrayal of Sam Cooke that stands out above all else.
Whilst the opening and closing sequences allow King to flex her cinematic muscles most effectively, bookending the film with two gut-punching moments as impactful as it gets, the bulk of the movie takes a more conversation heavy and theatrically staged form. But when the dialogue is as compellingly written and acted as this, it’s difficult to argue against. “How much do the oppressed have to do before they can be recognised as human beings?”, we’re asked as we drill down to the crux of the debate. The answers that One Night in Miami provides are likely to last long in the memory.
Rating (out of 5):
One Night in Miami was part of the programme at the BFI London Film Festival 2020.