With Oscar season approaching and most, if not all, of the offerings available to watch at home, I thought I’d have a stab at reviewing the potential nominees. Disclaimer: I will not have seen any of these films on an actual movie screen. Some I wish I could have, but these are different times. Besides, I may never get such an easy chance to catch them all as normally half the nominees do not screen in our area until well after the ceremony. These are in no particular order. I’ll make my picks closer to the big virtual show.
I love theater. I like film. So, it stands to reason that I should like films of plays. But that’s not always the case. The beauty of a play is the action is often restricted to a single setting, forcing the audience to listen to the dialogue, to absorb the interaction between the characters. Often times, in an effort to conform to a more cinematic ideal, directors open up the play, moving action to far-flung places that dilute the impact of the text.
Fortunately, first-time director Regina King keeps “One Night in Miami…” on a fairly tight leash. The few scenes that take place outside a solitary Hampton House motel room in south Florida are still tightly focused on the conversation between the characters.
And what characters they are. New heavyweight champ Cassius Clay, legendary NFL running back Jim Brown, iconic singer/songwriter Sam Cooke and activist Malcolm X. Adapted by Kemp Powers from his own play of the same name, the film is a fictionalized imagining of a real event, as he told Esquire UK.
“About 15 years ago I was reading a book on the intersection between professional sports and the civil rights movement,” he said. “The focus was Muhammad Ali and it mentioned that specific night and the fact that when Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston, he went back to Malcolm X’s hotel room with Sam Cooke and Jim Brown. The next morning he announced that he was a member of The Nation of Islam to the press. I already knew about the relationship between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, but for some reason the idea of the four of them together in a room really sparked my imagination.”
As there was no account of what the four men actually talked about, Powers lets his imagination run and the result is a stunning script that explores the complexities concealed beneath the quartet’s’ public image.
The film, set in 1964, opens with four short scenes that place each man in societal context. They have all achieved a level of fame, yet they are still black men in early 1960s America, with all the difficulties that brings. The scene at a Georgia plantation where Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) finds out exactly what is legendary status is worth is shocking and sets up the discussions we are about to hear.
Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X is already questioning his relationship with the Nation of Islam’s hierarchy. His performance is wonderful, alternately contemplative, fiery, intelligent and nervous, constantly removing his glasses and rubbing the bridge of his nose, a man carrying the weight of oppression and expectation. Ben-Adir infuses the character with melancholy, as if he racing against time toward an inevitable conclusion to his story.
Eli Goree’s Clay captures just enough of the king’s mannerism without being a parody, giving us a glimpse of the insecurity underneath the bluster as he contemplates his conversion to Islam. Hodge’s Brown is confident and quietly thoughtful, someone who recognizes that for all his athletic greatness, he is a disposable icon, someone who will be discarded once he is no longer able to perform.
The fourth member of the group is Leslie Odom Jr.’s Sam Cooke. He is staying at The Fountainbleau Hotel rather than the segregated Hampton House, which he calls “a dump.” In his purple suit, Cooke is a man who relishes success and its trappings. Odom Jr. perfectly embodies Cooke’s sophistication, while also revealing his burning ambition and intellect.
Behind closed doors, these men prod and poke each other, alternately sparring and supporting at various times. Behind those shabby hotel doors, guarded — or imprisoned — by Malcolm’s Nation of Islam bodyguards, they reveal their hopes and dreams, and their fears.
Malcolm, the least financially comfortable of the quartet, serves as the social conscience. The tension between him and the overtly affluent Cooke is a source of tension and the other two are dragged in and out of their quarrels throughout the evening.
“One Night in Miami…” is an intellectual exercise wrapped up in a story of friendship. It is a story about four distinct individuals, yet it is universal in its appeal.
King is a well-known actress, most recently with an award-winning turn in “Watchmen.” But she is also a skillful director on this showing. Her biggest gift is to keep out of the way. A less confident director would feel the need to help the action along. King understand that what action there is comes from the words. Her camera simply follows the men around the room as they sort through their relationships, both to each other and to the fractured society in which they live.
The single setting is important. Outside the room is a world that sees the four men only for the icons they are (or in Malcolm’s case, for the threat they have become). It is their confinement, ironically, that allows them to be free with each other.
“One Night in Miami…” is profoundly moving. It is a visually beautiful film and wonderfully directed, but it is the writing that elevates it to greatness. It’s just a movie about four men talking in a room, but when they speak Powers’ words, it is a pleasure be in the room with them — if only for one night.
When the film is over, take a deep dive into the related material (check out the 1969 “Cleveland Summit”).
“One Night in Miami” is rated R. It is streaming for free on Prime Video.