One Night in Miami is both a magnificent achievement by a first time director while also being intensely engrossing and moving. Like Muhammad Ali, it bobs and weaves between characters and never misses a step. Far from being a “message movie” or one of those movies that feel as if you have to see it as if it were akin to eating your vegetables; it is neither.
All hail, Regina King as she has made a deeply fun and intensely complicated portrait about four Black men celebrating (soon to be known as Muhammad Ali) Cassius Clay’s (Eli Goree) new reign as World Champion. She effortlessly weaves together four distinct personalities and not only attempts to adapt a play, which comes with its own set of hurdles but dares to film not one but two boxing matches. King does it all and with such grace and skill, you’d hardly notice it. That, dear reader, is talent.
The boxing element is particularly impressive considering how many great directors have agonized over how to both dramatically and cinematically film a boxing match. Everyone from Martin Scorsese once famously said the difficulty was that Buster Keaton did it best. King understands this or at the very least Tami Reiker, her cinematographer does.
The two ladies take a cue from Keaton and keep the fights kinetic. Mixing wide shots with close-ups while also allowing us to see Goree’s incredible footwork inside the ring. Goree trained and King goes out of her way to make sure we see the fruits of his labor.
If I seem to be belaboring the point it is only because these fights take place in the first twenty minutes and are only a fraction of the proof of talent and skill King possesses. Reiker and King tone down the lighting outside the ring making inside the ropes seem bright and almost otherworldly as Goree dances around Sonny Liston (Aaron D. Alexander) with the delicacy and grace of a ballet dancer.
The film is based on based on the play of the same name. King displays one of the hardest to capture aspects of theater for the cinematic experience; the intimacy and immediacy of the moment. She did not film it live and it never feels as if it is. But it does feel as if it is all happening before you for the very first time, and that is a feeling so few films have.
Both the play and the adaptation are written by Kemp Powers. By now, you most likely know that One Night in Miami is a fictional account of one night in a Miami hotel wherein Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Jones (Aldis Hodge), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.), and Cassius Clay spend the night celebrating, arguing, and coming to terms. The setup is hardly new and novel but King and Powers never makes it feel stale or cliche.
One Night in Miami has a thousand different hurdles that would seem innocuous until piled onto one another. For a first-time director to even tackle this is a big risk never mind the confidence and skill it would require. Probably one of the biggest issues to overcome wasn’t even King’s but one that merely fell under her purview.
How does one play a character that is both based on a real-life person and who has been widely portrayed by famous and popular actors of their time? Goree and Ben-Adir both find ways into these characters that both make them their own, while also showing us a much deeper and human side than their predecessors were allowed to explore.
King had to either help them or give them the room to find their way. Either way, the result is riveting as Goree’s Clay is charismatic, youthful, brash, and a sweet portrayal of the Louisville Lip. Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X, is likewise, an altogether different look at the Civil Rights leader. More human and more multi-faceted, we see how Malcolm can be grating at times but we also see his timidity and his self-doubt. But none of this is done to make him look weak, merely more complete as a human being.
One Night in Miami endevaors to bring these icons down to Earth. The film is less interested in these men as figures of history rather than who they were as everyday people. By doing so the film amplifies thier greatness.
I cannot imagine the challenges the actors face trying to find ways into these characters and make them feel fresh. But they do. They find ways and make these characters feel alive and I promise you, watching these actors ply their trade the names Washington and Smith will only enter your mind after the movie is over and you are reminded that someone else had played them too.
In one scene in particular, while up on the roof of a motel, Cassius steals Malcolm’s camera and the other three proceed to play keep away. For a brief moment, Malcolm X is gone and we are left with Malcolm. The others laugh and point out that for a moment he even dropped his infamous speech affectation.
Powers’s dialogue flows like honey and the actors can’t help but drink it up. The scenes flow so easily and so seamlessly because the words flow so deliciously from their mouths. Like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom this is a dialogue that has been carefully nurtured and cared for and allows for both the actors and King to easily find their groove.
These are brilliant performances. But King not only captures them but also provides the space for these actors to explore and find these characters. This is not merely a good first movie. This is a great movie, period.
Aldis Hodge has been steadily making his case for movie stardom for the past decade. His Jim Brown is yet another conclusive installment for the status. He embodies Brown with a silent swagger and a conscientious observation.
In one scene, early on, Hodge’s Brown is talking to an old family friend Mr. Carlton (Beau Bridges), an older white man. Mr. Carlton tells Jim how proud he is of Jim. He offers to help Jim’s Aunt if she ever needs anything. All the while we are waiting for the shoe to drop.
Finally, his daughter comes, out to where the two men are seated. She reminds her father that he promised to help move a dresser. There’s a long enough pause where King allows us to conclude that we have figured out Mr. Carlton’s agenda. He’s called Jim out to help move furniture.
Jim offers to help but Mr. Carlton declines. His response is as simple and off the cuff as it is jaw-droppingly racist. Even Jim Brown is caught off guard.
Goree’s Cassius is young and full of life, he’s only 22 after all. He dances around the room, shadow boxing, his whole body humming with life as he surges with adrenaline after winning a world championship. He wants to party, to dance, to celebrate.
This desire clashes against his budding devotion to Islam. As much as he respects Malcolm, Jim seems to be the one who can understand the young fighter’s restlessness, possibly because he is the only other athlete in the group. Reiker’s camera holds a wide shot from inside the house as Brown merely stands in the doorway looking in.
Hodge’s stance is proud but also unsure. The light from the evening sun backlighting him as he stands in the dark unsure of what has happened but also unsure of what to do. It’s a visual representation of Brown’s character.
Jim Brown may not be as well known as Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, or Sam Cooke to modern white audiences. While Brown was a movie star, for a generation of white film buffs who tend to recoil at being asked to go beyond the year 1979, he may well be unknown. But Hodge’s personality and demeanor make it impossible to tear your eyes off of him.
Add to this the fact that Hodge’s has the difficult task of being the one with the least to say. He doesn’t have a lot of monologues and spends most of the movie not saying much. But his silence speaks volumes.
He steals the scene oftentimes by how he holds himself. At one point Sam and Cassius come back to the hotel room to find Malcolm and Jim sitting opposite each other on the bed. Malcolm hunched over exhausted and unsure where Jim seems to be acting as a Priest taking confession.
If all of this wasn’t enough King also shows herself adept at music. Odom’s Cooke is seen at the Copacabana as well as a Detroit concert where Kin and Reiker mesh mood and song together for sublime perfection. Cooke’s debut at his dream concert at the Copacabana is a disaster and we feel the shame and embarrassment both through Odom’s performance but through King’s direction and Reiker’s framing. The way the spotlight never wavers off Cooke’s embarrassed face or the way the waiter constantly walks in front of him while he’s crooning all comes together to give us an intimate introduction to a character we just met a few minutes prior.
The Detroit concert is a thing of ecstatic beauty. Cooke’s microphone cuts out and King gives us the feeling of his soulful melodic voice without us hearing his voice. The crowd claps along, stomping their feet as he sings “Chain Gang”, all while Malcolm X watches transfixed from the back of the theater.
Much will be written about Gorre’s physical training and Ben-Adir’s nuanced and humanizing portrayal of an icon but Odom Jr.’s voice work is every bit as noteworthy. It would be one thing if he were merely singing. But understand he is singing in the style of Sam Cooke, one of the greatest crooners of all time.
Add to that the fact that Odom, Jr. nails it? One Night in Miami is possibly one of the most skillfully put together and acted movies I’ve seen all year and it does so with so little fanfare you’d happily walk away thinking you merely saw an entertaining movie instead of a masterwork debut of a first time director.
Odom Jr.’s Cooke stands as the outside agitator of sorts. The most successful of the four, financially, he’s even staying at a white hotel. Though he admits his white manager made the reservations. He and Malcolm are at odds with Malcolm refusing to let up on what he believes to be Sam’s lack of messaging for the cause.
Reiker’s camera is acrobatic but never to the point of distracting. She does a magnificent job of moving the camera and framing the space as a way to help cultivate the mood while also allowing actors to communicate silently with their facial expressions from across the room. There are times where the camera becomes visible such as when she has it above Malcolm’s car.
It’s a shot from a bird’s eye view and we see the four doors open at once as the four men get out. It’s a perfect shot that allows for the feeling that this is all somehow a series of predetermined events.
King spends much of the movie inside a single motel room but it never feels claustrophobic or unnatural for them to be in there for so long. She cleverly leaves the room from time to time but always in ways that feel natural and never feel as if she is trying to forcefully “open the play up” for the film.
One Night in Miami is a movie about race but it’s about race in a way so few movies are ever allowed to be. King doesn’t direct the film as if it’s a message movie so much as it’s an exploration of class, race, masculinity, and deep abiding friendship. The result is a powerful exhilarating, intoxicating exploration of four Black men not as icons or martyrs but as human beings forced to hold the weight of the world, and their, race on their shoulders.
Image courtesy of Amazon Studios
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