Directed by Regina King and written by Kemp Powers, a fictional account of one incredible night where icons Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown gathered discussing their roles in the civil rights movement and cultural upheaval of the 60s. Starring: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Christian Magby, Joaquina Kalukango and Nicolette Robinson.
It’s fair to say things get off to a rocky start with the film as it feels as though it’s picked up the tone and atmosphere of the stage from which its adapted. There’s something not quite sincere about it, it’s too soft and accessible, it’s dipping its toes before it prepares to dive in. It’s a slow build but the tension grows as the night unfolds and their conversations become increasingly honest and open, the film’s strength doesn’t really kick in until they stop holding back. However, there is one singular moment in the opening of the film, after being lulled into a false sense of security by its very casual and nostalgic air, one short, sharp line of dialogue slaps you right across the face and gives you hope of what’s to come.
Undeniably the filmmakers cast a spectacular ensemble of actors and each playing such looming figures of history was a daunting task but one that each and every one of them is up to. Given that Eli Goree’s acting career has so far almost entirely consisted of television, the film world has clearly been missing out on a star, his performance as Cassius has such a stellar energy, a touch of naivety and a big heart, he’s full of youth and buoyancy that’s a joy to watch. Leslie Odom Jr. transfers some of that well-known Aaron Burr confidence and self-assuredness to Sam, he’s smooth and smart, quick and forthright. Aldis Hodge’s Jim Brown is diplomatic, pragmatic and wise, he provides a neutral ground for this group of emphatic, strong willed men, with his undeniable charm and sincerity. Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm is an unusual character, his demeanour is uncomfortably passive and even-toned, it’s not until the group break through his icy exterior that he really shines but it’s easy to see the commitment he put into the performance, trying to capture the details of his body language and speech. Together they make a great ensemble of very different characters whom all have a mutual connection and respect between them, that makes them engaging to watch.
Given that the film revolves around their discussion, a lot of the weight rests upon the writing but it’s very well done, as the scenes get more intense, it’s sharp and biting, there’s a great deal of depth to it and it builds wonderfully. Its mix of drama, history, religion, friendship and loyalty, as well as traversing its way through some classic masculinity traits, is surprisingly humble for a film about such legendary figures. The direction lacks a little subtlety and flowing movement, it often tries to use inventive angles given the confined space of its motel room setting but they don’t quite work and can feel clumsy. Similarly with the editing, it could have used smoothing out in parts, especially early on. However, once it really gets into the swing of things, the direction finds its footing and starts to draw you in more deeply.
One Night in Miami is an earnest yet powerful way to present such historical figures, it may stumble slightly in its transition from stage to screen but once it finds its footing, it’s captivating and honest. You have to give it the benefit of the doubt but it’s more than worth it in the end. Watching Leslie Odom Jr. sing ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ is a powerful moment, one that will stick with you and that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the entire film, in a final release of emotion to leave you in a reflective and tearful quiet as you ponder its significance and all the events of history that have followed. It’s a strong debut from King but like many stage to screen adaptations it lacks that little something extra to differentiate itself from the previous production.