One happens in Miami…
With January now passed, the Oscar contenders are in full swing for the rest of us plebeians who aren’t friends with professional critics. No matter, especially if the quality of the output is good at least, and that’s certainly the case with today’s entry, One Night in Miami. Based on a stage play by Brian Kemp and directed by Regina King, the film depicts a fictionalized meeting between Malcolm X (Kinglsey Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay AKA Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr) in 1964 shortly after Ali’s victory to become the world heavyweight champion. Any more plot details you need to know? Nope, that’s basically all you need to know going on.
I usually take this second paragraph to give a brief plot synopsis, but there’s not really much of a plot to talk about. What you have is a simple bottle film, that is a film that primarily takes place in a single enclosed location where the characters have multiple discussions. The Hateful Eight, 12 Angry Men, and Rear Window are among the all-time champs in this style of filmmaking, and we may have a new contender by the end of this review. The stakes of this film’s meeting are not as immediate as the aforementioned bottle movies, but the societal impact of what they are discussing feels historical and yet sadly relevant to this day.
The film wisely doesn’t start inside the proverbial “bottle”, but rather it gets you up to speed with where our four leads were in February 1964. Malcolm X is on the precipice of falling out with the Nation of Islam; Cassius Clay almost let his ego get the better him in a match against Henry Cooper; Sam Cooke felt humiliated after playing for an all-white crowd at Copacabana; and Jim Brown still can’t get basic respect even when he’s considered the best NFL player at the time. All of this is vital information for you to understand where each man is coming from when they meet in Miami at Malcolm X’s behest partly to celebrate Clay’s new title and partly to reflect upon their place in America and the African-American community…to the chagrin of everyone involved. Everybody else just wants to party and savor the night, but they all inadvertently start letting their public image fade and start speaking their minds in a brutally honest fashion.
The exchanges between these men is the real selling point of this film, coupled with the fantastic performances from the cast. I will confess I didn’t get to see much of Aldis Hodge’s chops in here, but that’s mostly because his character’s got less beef and anxiety to work through than the other leads. Which isn’t his fault mind you, but I do feel the screenwriter could have reworked his role in the production to have more to argue with the other three. Hodge does well in the scenes that require his attention, but he unfortunately gets overlooked by the powerhouse performances of Kinglsey Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, and Leslie Odom, Jr. Ben-Adir especially knocks it out of the park with his portrayal of Malcolm X. Nailing the subtle nuances of the late activist’s mannerisms and manner of speech is one thing, but creating a deeply conflicted character with tons of issues bubbling beneath the surface is another matter entirely. And Ben-Adir rises to the occasion with gusto, which is excellent considering that the film’s biggest debates and arguments all come from his character.
Eli Goree meanwhile looked like he was having a blast playing Cassius Clay. Plus he’s got an enviable role as someone who gets to be popular and charismatic, but also have to deal with tons of inner turmoil to work out. See, Clay at this point in his life was a practicing Muslim in private but had not yet publicly joined the Nation of Islam. It’s impressive how much strife Goree is able to convey in such a short amount of time, and you feel such worry for the guy…even though you know damn well he’s going to start calling himself Muhammad Ali at some point (even if you know nothing about history, you’ll know this basic fact).
But Leslie Odom, Jr. may have delivered my favorite performance in the film. The man proved he’s exceptionally talented both as a thespian and as a singer as Aaron Burr in Hamilton, and he continues to see out roles that allow him to use both of his amazing talents. Here, as Sam Cooke, Odom absolutely commands attention with his charisma, internal strife, insecurity, cockiness, and abrasiveness; while also carrying on as the group’s wild card. That is to say he’s frequently messing with the other three characters, particularly with Malcolm X. These scenes are, for my money, the reason to watch this film. These arguments feel like they’re a second away from escalating to throwing punches, but these two will absolutely not resort to that because of their begrudging mutual respect for one another. It’s a fantastic dynamic to witness, especially when you get to the heavy societal issues that are brought up throughout the film.
As I mentioned last week in my review of The White Tiger, I appreciate films that can become more than just simply telling me a story, and can rise above and be about weighty and complex issues while still managing to engage the audience. Here, Malcolm X’s request to reflect on their attendees’ respective success leads to uncomfortable discussions on whether or not to use their platforms to raise civil rights issues, even when doing so could impact them all financially. Boy, it’s great that high profile African-Americans have to do that anymore…he said sarcastically. Other issues are discussed, such as the lengths one must go to when publicly converting religions, the value in switching careers, and the ability to use music to get a message out there. So many high quality discussions are born from this film, and I appreciated Regina King’s direction and Kemp Powers’ screenplay for bringing this all together.
King in particular has been a solid television director for years when she wasn’t continuing her acting career of over thirty years, and for her feature film debut should put other veteran directors to shame. Marvelous composition, tight pacing, smart editing cuts, and a clear vision that brings the whole production together wonderfully. It’s been so long that I get to review two high quality releases back to back, I can’t even recall being this flush with riches. You know what’s coming, it’s a hearty recommendation for this film, which can only mean that this movie is a…